What Is a Water Chestnut?

This question came up on a recent episode of Every Little Thing, and while I have eaten water chestnuts on numerous occasions, I realized that I have never really considered what they were or where they came from. Thanks to the folks at ELT, I am better informed. So, why not spread the wealth?

Chinese water chestnut (not to be confused with Trapa natans, which is also commonly known as water chestnut) is in the family Cyperaceae – the sedge family. Known botanically as Eleocharis dulcis, it is a member of a sizable genus collectively referred to as the spikerushes or spikesedges. Its distribution is quite expansive, spanning sections of Australia, tropical Africa, several countries in Asia, as well as islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is commonly cultivated in regions outside of its native range, including in North America as a novelty crop.

Eleocharis dulcis is a perennial, aquatic plant that grows in marshes, bogs, and the margins of other wetland and riparian areas in tropical and subtropical climates. Individual plants are clumps of tall, stiff, upright, leafless stems that can grow to over one meter tall. An infloresence is borne at the tops of stems and is a short, cylindrical cluster of small, yellow-brown florets. Clumps of stems are connected via rhizomes, and in this manner dense colonies can be formed. Rhizomes also terminate in corms, which are the edible portion of E. dulcis and the part of the plant that we refer to as water chestnuts.

Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) growing in a bog garden – photo credit: flickr/techieoldfox

Corms are underground storage organs. They are the bases of stems that have become thick and swollen with starch. They are often covered in papery scales – which are the remnants of leaves – that help protect the corm from being damaged or drying out. Buds on the top of the corm form shoots; adventitious roots form on the bottom of the corm. Tubers, which are also modified stems and underground storage organs, differ from corms in that they have growing points at various locations along their surface rather than a single growing point at the top.

Common misconceptions are that water chestnuts are nuts or roots. They are neither. They are corms, or in other words, they are modified stem bases. Apart from that, they are vegetables. Curiously, they are vegetables from a plant family that does not produce much in the way of food for humans. Consider that the next time you eat them. You are eating a sedge.

Corm of Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis), the edible portion of the plant – photo credit: flickr/sclereid0309

Chinese water chestnuts can be prepared in many ways, both raw and cooked. I have only had them in stir fries, but they can also be used in salads and soups or ground into flour to make water chestnut cakes. Interestingly, even when they are cooked they remain crisp. This has something to due with the special properties of their cell walls.

As an agricultural crop they are often grown in paddies in rotation with rice. With a few preparations they can also be grown at home alongside your other vegetables. Further information and instruction can be found at various locations online including Permaculture Research Institute, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Plants for a Future.

Having only eaten water chestnuts from a can, I am anxious to try fresh, raw water chestnuts. Apparently they are available at certain Asian markets. When I get my hands on some, I will let you know what I think. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for further updates.

———————

What are your favorite ways to eat Chinese water chestnuts? Let us know in the comment section below.

Advertisements

Field Trip: Bruneau Dunes State Park

One of the aims of American Wetlands Month is to encourage people to get out and visit nearby wetlands. I accepted this challenge by visiting the small lakes and marshes of Bruneau Dunes State Park which is located about 20 miles south of Mountain Home, Idaho (or, 70 miles from my house).

The park is known for its enormous sand dunes, claiming the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America which measures about 470 feet. The dunes began forming about 15,000 years ago during the Bonneville Flood. After the flood receded, the dunes continued to grow due to their unique location – a basin in which strong winds approach from both the northwest and the southeast, carrying sand from the surrounding steppes and keeping the dunes in place.

Two small lakes and a marsh are found nestled among the dunes, and the Snake River flows just north of the park. Apart from the dunes and the wetlands, the park also includes desert and prairie habitats and is situated in an extensive conservation area called Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey. If that’s not enough, Bruneau Dunes State Park is home to a public observatory, where visitors can view the night sky and learn more about the stars and our place in the universe.

A marshy entrance to Dunes Lake

A marshy entrance to Dunes Lake

Climbing the sand dunes (and, if you’re up for it, sledding down them) is understandably a popular activity at the park. I spent a decent amount of time on top of the dunes, partly because the view was great and because the mosquitoes seemed to be absent up there. Yes, when visiting a wetland, you are advised to carry mosquito repellent, otherwise the cloud of mosquitoes that will undoubtedly surround you will make for an unpleasant experience. They will also make it difficult to stand still long enough to take a decent picture.

On top of a small dune looking across lake to large dune.

On top of small dune looking across lake to large dune

On top of large dune looking across lake to small dune.

On top of large dune looking across lake to small dune

Traversing the spine of a brontosauras (aka sand dune).

Traversing the spine of a brontosaurus (a.k.a. sand dune)

On top of the sand dune looking down at the lake and marsh.

On top of sand dune looking down at the lake and marsh

The marshes and shores around the lakes were populated with numerous wetland plants, including swamp milkweed (Aesclepias incarnata), duckweed (Lemna minuta), cattails (Typha sp.), and various rushes, sedges, and grasses. Native shrubs were also present, however the dominant woody plants were (unfortunately) introduced species: Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) and saltcedar (Tamarix chinenesis).

An entrance to the marsh

An entrance to the marsh

Flowers of bullrush (Schoenoplectus sp.)

Flowers of bulrush (Schoenoplectus sp.)

Russian olive (Eleagnus angustifolia)

Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)

Saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis)

Saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis)

Despite being there to explore and celebrate the wetland, the plants in the adjacent area (which appeared to be growing in almost 100% sand) continued to draw me away. Some I recognized easily, while others I could only identify to genus or couldn’t identify at all. Some notable observations included low lupine (Lupinus pusillus), sand-dune penstemon (Penstemon acuminatus), pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida), and species in the genera Astragalus, Erigeron, and Eriogonum. Two bunchgrasses were particularly common throughout the area: Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides) and needle and thread grass (Hesperostipa comata).

All of these plants are worthy of being photographed; however, the wind makes that difficult to do. Idaho is a windy state, and an area composed of wind-formed sand dunes is particularly windy. Between swarms of mosquitoes and consistent wind, capturing decent photos was a challenge. Aside from those minor nuissances, I had a very enjoyable time and hope to visit again soon.

Phacelia (Phacelia hastata)

Silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata)

Nakedstem sunray (Enceliopsis nudicaulis)

Nakedstem sunray (Enceliopsis nudicaulis)

Have you visited a wetland this month? Or do you plan to? Share your adventures in the comments section below.

Ethnobotany: Cattails

“If you ever eat cattails, be sure to cook them well, otherwise the fibers are tough and they take more chewing to get the starchy food from them than they are worth. However, they taste like potatoes after you have been eating them for a couple weeks, and to my way of thinking are extremely good.”  – Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

franz

Illustration by Franz Anthony (www.franzanth.com)

Ask anyone to list plants commonly found in American wetlands, and you can guarantee that cattails will make the list nearly every time. Cattails are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are so successful, that it is hard to picture a wetland without them. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses this well known association:

Cattails grow in nearly all types of wetlands, wherever there is adequate sun, plentiful nutrients, and soggy ground. Midway between land and water, freshwater marshes are among the most highly productive ecosystems on earth, rivaling the tropical rainforest. People valued the supermarket of the swamp for the cattails, but also as a rich source of fish and game. Fish spawn in the shallows; frogs and salamanders abound. Waterfowl nest here in the safety of the dense sward, and migratory birds seek out cattail marshes for sanctuary on their journeys.

The two most abundant species of cattails in North America are Typha latifolia (common cattail) and Typha angustifolia (narrow leaf cattail). T. angustifolia may have been introduced from Europe. The two species also hybridize to form Typha x glauca. There are about 30 species in the genus Typha, and they share the family Typhaceae with just one other genus. The common names for cattail are nearly as abundant as the plant itself: candlewick, water sausage, corn dog plant, cossack asparagus, reedmace, nailrod, cumbungi, etc., etc.

Cattails have long, upright, blade-like leaves. As they approach the base of the plant, the leaves wrap around each other to form a tight bundle with no apparent stem. As Kimmerer puts it, this arrangement enables the plants to “withstand wind and wave action” because “the collective is strong.” Flowers appear on a tall stalk that reaches up towards the tops of the leaves. The inflorescence is composed of hundreds of separate male and female flowers. Male flowers are produced at the top of the stalk and female flowers are found directly below them. In the spring, the male flowers dump pollen down onto the female flowers, and wind carries excess pollen to nearby plants, producing what looks like yellow smoke.

After pollination, the male flowers fade away, leaving the female flowers to mature into a seed head. Just like the flowers, the seeds are small and held tightly together, maintaining the familiar sausage shape. Each seed has a tuft of “hair” attached to it to aid in wind dispersal. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman writes about the abundant seeds (“an estimated average of 220,000 seeds per spike”) of cattail: “A quick experiment, one that Thoreau delighted to perform, demonstrates how tightly the dry seeds are packed in the spike – pull out a small tuft and watch it immediately expand to fill your hand with a downy mass.”

cattails bunch

cattail fluff

Because cattails spread so readily via rhizomes, prolific airborne seeds mostly serve to colonize new sites, away from the thick mass of already established cattails. The ability to dominate vast expanses of shoreline gives cattails an invasive quality that often results in attempts at removal. Various human activities may be aiding their success. Regardless, they provide food and habitat to numerous species of insects, spiders, birds, and mammals. A cattail marsh may not be diverse plant-wise, but it is teeming with all sorts of other life.

Ethnobotanically speaking, it is hard to find many other species that have as many human uses as cattails. For starters, nearly every part of the plant is edible at some point during the year. The rhizomes can be consumed year-round but are best from fall to early spring. They can be roasted, boiled, grated, ground, or dried and milled into flour. Starch collected from pounding and boiling the rhizomes can be used as a thickener. In the spring, young shoots emerging from the rhizomes and the tender core of the leaf bundles can be eaten raw or cooked and taste similar to cucumber. Young flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob and taste similar to artichoke. Pollen, which is high in protein, can be mixed with flour and used to make pancakes and baked goods, among other things. The seeds can be ground into flour or pressed to produce cooking oil.

Cattail leaves can be used to make cords, mats, baskets, thatch, and many other things. Kimmerer writes about the excellent wigwam walls and sleeping mats that weaved cattail leaves make:

The cattails have made a suburb material for shelter in leaves that are long, water-repellent, and packed with closed-cell foam for insulation. … In dry weather, the leaves shrink apart from one another and let the breeze waft between them for ventilation. When the rains come, they swell and close the gap, making the [wall] waterproof. Cattails also make fine sleeping mats. The wax keeps away moisture from the ground and the aerenchyma provide cushioning and insulation.

The fluffy seeds make great tinder for starting fires, as well as excellent insulation and pillow and mattress stuffing. The dry flower stalks can be dipped in fat, lit on fire, and used as a torch. Native Americans used crushed rhizomes as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, sores, etc. A clear gel is found between the tightly bound leaves of cattail. Kimmerer writes, “The cattails make the gel as a defense against microbes and to keep the leaf bases moist when water levels drop.” The gel can be used like aloe vera gel to soothe sunburned skin.

Eastman rattles off a number of commercial uses for cattail: “Flour and cornstarch from rhizomes, ethyl alcohol from the fermented flour, burlap and caulking from rhizome fibers, adhesive from the stems, insulation from the downy spikes, oil from the seeds, rayon from cattail pulp, …” To conclude his section on cattails he writes, “With cattails present, one need not starve, freeze, remain untreated for injury, or want for playthings.”

Additional Resources: