, , , , , , ,

Rivers, brooks and streams have served as fundamental cornerstones of most ancient civilizations, and many urban dwellers today are familiar with canals or waterways, whether natural or man-made.  Plant life flourishes along rivers; the earliest “urban” foragers likely considered river banks as places of plenty.  As mentioned earlier, the current natural features of the Northern European Lowlands were determined by the retrieval of glaciers, thus making the presence of water abundant.  In terms of Berlin’s aquatic attractions, the Panke is at first sight unimpressive: a rerouted and mostly canalized rivulet less than thirty kilometers long, whose slow and meager current comes to a near standstill at some places along its route.  It is hard to imagine that in the 19th century the Panke was home to many watermills, or that its waters were once used to brew beer.

We have come to know the Panke through many of our walks along its banks.  As the river flows through Wedding and its namesake Pankow, it is only a short walk away from where we live and always provides us with a botanical adventure.  Although we have encountered many interesting plant species along the Panke, today we briefly focus on one plant which most of you are familiar with and which is characteristic of wetlands.

Cattails are known the world over, and their characteristic brown flower spikes are hard to miss in the late summer and fall. Berlin has at least two species of wild growing cattails, Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) and Lesser Bullrush (Typha angustifolia).  If you take a walk along the Panke, you are eventually bound to come across a colony of cattails and might think you have found an urban foraging treasure trove.  The praises of cattails as an edible food have been sung for millennia by many cultures.  It seems that nearly all parts of the plants are edible when harvested at the appropriate times. Certainly, the young shoots are edible in the spring, and if you like to get your hands dirty the starchy rhizomes are also edible at this time.  Many other parts of the plant are delicious including the inner part of the stalk, the base of the leaves, and even the yellow pollen which apparently makes for a great pancake mix.

However, other uses for cattails are particularly interesting and useful, especially in view of the darker side of industrialism and its disastrous effects on the Panke.  The industrial runoff severely polluted the Panke, which consequently became locally known as Stinky Panke.  In the past couple of decades there have been major efforts to rehabilitate the river and the results are already promising. So what do cattails have to do with all this? Well, it just so happens that cattails have the ability to absorb contaminants and pollutants from water, in particular arsenic.  This is a process known as phytoremediation, and cattails are a poster child for this type of organic water filtration system.  While this is great news for the environment, it should definitely make you think twice before harversting cattails from the Panke!

young edible cattail shoots