Cattail Pollen

From the road, I see yellow tops swaying in the wind alongside the green leaves of cattails. Too late, too late! I’ve missed the best of the harvest. Some of the oversized grasses might still hold what I’m searching for, and I pull my car into the parking lot next to the college sports field.

On either side of Starkweather Creek, cattails form a seemingly impenetrable wall. At the top of the wall, like yellow turrets, eight inch tall anthers still stand. Some have turned a mellow orange, a small amount of pollen clinging to the empty brown husk of the male part of the plant. Tomorrow, the next day, the fluffy husks that held billions of particles of pollen will blow away with the wind, leaving behind only a thin stick above the swiftly swelling flower, dark brown and soft to the touch. People always think that it’s this brown, hot-dog shaped flower that I’m harvesting; few ever notice the short mating season of the cattail plant, when the anthers bloom.

I get out of my car with my foraging bucket in hand. A 20” bicycle tire, inflated, is wrapped double around the top rim of the bucket; if I lose my grip, the bucket will stay upright, my foraging prizes safe and dry.  Inside, I’ve stashed a pair of pruning shears and three types of insect repellent. I plunk my wallet, phone, and other random bits of paper and metal from my pockets down into the driver’s seat, apply two of the repellants to my clothes and one to my face, and head toward the wall of cattails.

My heart is easy as my feet leave the groomed grass ringing the parking lot. The rest of the world makes no sense to me. The marsh is a simple place, with simple rules.

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Red-winged blackbirds perch on the top branches of trees, playing sentinel over the marsh.

Red-winged blackbird calls out to the marsh as I approach: “Predator in the marsh. Attention! Human in the marsh.” Thirty feet away, on the far side of the creek, a coyote trots confidently away from the grasses where she’d been hunting, headed for the woods. Coyotes hide all through the city, in woods and by the railroad tracks; coming out at night if they must, in broad daylight in places like this, where humans have reintroduced pieces of the wild. It’s the first time I’ve seen a coyote, outside of a zoo; she’s beautiful, head held high, tongue out and panting as she runs, tail a fluffy flag behind her. Little hurry in her motion; she knows how loud and slow I would be if I chose to chase after her.

“Predator in the marsh!”

“Predator in the marsh!”

I’ve heard these marsh birds make four distinct calls, and I know I’m missing most of the content of their communications—whatever it is they say to each other when they’re not focused on surveilling me. By day, red-winged blackbirds are the first, most distinctive sound of the marsh; “Bur-cheeee!” the call and “quirr-whit!” the response. By night, every frog and toad takes up chorus, louder and louder as the human world quiets down; at least four different species compete to make their mating calls clear across the cacophony. If it were night, my approach would trigger sudden silence; unlike the frogs, the blackbirds have no fear that I might follow their call in to their hiding places. The birds call back and forth from the freedom of the sky, tracking me.

These are narrow-leaf cattails, invaders from Europe; they have fewer predators than the common cattails native to Wisconsin, and spread faster, shoving out the commons. Their roots are nearly worthless, skinny and fibrous, where common cattails have a thick inner root, full of potato-like starch. I’ve decided that I’m not so fond of cattail root starch; it’s the pollen that’s the rare treat. Common cattail anthers are over an inch thick at their fullest, bright yellow and turgid with encapsulated sperm, ready to fly with the wind to every adjacent flower. Narrowleaf anthers are more slender, but still prolific enough to gather nearly a liter of pollen in a few hours.

A few anthers still cling tightly to their central, woody stem, pollen mature but still encapsulated in a fibrous mesh; they’re neatly slender at the base, but the rest of their length begins to rumple like the skin of a Basset Hound as the plant-sperm pushes against its confinement. These are my targets; I reach high along the slender stem rising from the center of the cattail, stopping the blades of my pruners below the anther, just above the flower, and cut, dropping the un-exploded head into my bucket.

On the Internet, people demonstrate collecting pollen by putting milk-jugs over the end of the flower, shaking the pollen out, and leaving the anther behind. I don’t know why; it’s not how the original Americans did it, and wastes time and pollen. A single male anther can pollinate the entire marsh for hundreds of yards up and downstream; I take the anthers from a hundred narrowleaf cattails and leave the few commons, hoping they’ll hybridize and make the marsh at least a little more productive. My foraging bucket begins to fill, slowly, sides quickly coated in yellow dust.

The water is lower this year than last; perhaps because I’ve come so late in the season, missing early June’s occasional deluge. Now, the light rains of early summer fall every few days, not quite covering last year’s thick leaves, flattened into a mat by winter snows. The mats make a pleasant bedding for my footfalls; cool and soft, rustling and crackling beneath me; spreading my weight out, so I don’t sink as deeply into the mud as I will in the bare patches of creekbed.

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Invasive phragmite reeds (“common reed”) chopped and laid out for the college landscapers to deal with. DIE, evil reed, DIE!

Sometimes I take after invasive phragmite reeds with a machete, killing off as many as I can, hauling off the reeds to make mason-bee houses, roofing for a shelter in my garden, or just throwing them on top of each other to dry in the sun. They have their notions of revenge; they don’t lay down in winter, and their broken stems are like daggers underfoot. Slowly but surely, they advance across the marsh, impervious to hungry insects, shading out the young cattails, the tight confines of their growth giving the blackbirds nowhere to build their nests. Cattails are a kinder plant, generous; worth defending.

“Predator! Predator! Near the nest! Look sharp! Predator!”
This third call, closer to the harsh “grak!” of a crow, takes no skill to understand. I’ve stepped over some invisible perimeter. Rally the flock and prepare to do battle! I don’t know how many birds associate in one area, whether they’re related, or if they coordinate their nest-care across more than two parents; there are at least ten birds in the branches of the willow over my head, calling to each other in alarm, focused on this enormous predator in their midst. They dart over my position, then land again; I have the impression, from the tenor of their calls, that each of them is a parent to those tiny, fuzzy babies, unfledged and helpless in the grass.

I’ve never seen a redwing blackbird nest. I hope I will not come across one while it’s in use, but I’d like to see one later on, empty of residents, just to know what it is I’m trying to avoid when I steer clear of the birds’ precious offspring. It’s their marsh; I’m merely a visitor. Wishing not to be an intruder; inevitably intrusive. Last year, I caught some children chasing after one of their babies, making it jump into the air in half-attempted flight. I scolded the children and spoke gently to the little bird, pressuring it with my presence to head back toward the safety of the grass, where worried parents stood high on the reeds, waiting to see if their offspring would be crushed or eaten.

Snip. Snip. One last anther catches my eye. Snip. “I’m leaving,” I tell the birds, and retreat back toward shore. They won’t relax until I’m well away from the nest and show no sign of coming back.

American leopard frog; rich brown patches painted over a lustrous golden hide, buccal patch beneath his throat pumping air into his lungs. Watching me, suddenly too close to run away from, wondering if he’ll be consumed. Snails, the size of a child’s fist, spiraled to a point. Broad wapato leaves grow in an open spot; I won’t disturb them until fall, when the leaf dies and the root is full of summer’s energy. Bullrush, dark green and holding their orange-brown flowers out to one side for the wind to sweep through. I’m glad to see these other plants; cattails are better than invasive phragmites, but they’re weedy themselves, forming monoculture stands that take up most of the space in the wetlands. I’ve recently helped to plant bur-reed, bulrush, wapato, and water lilies, in the ephemeral ponds across the street from my apartment. Some have taken root and shot up quickly; some may even have washed downstream to colonize the rest of the wetland.

Cattail marsh in early spring, before new growth arrives; this is a monoculture stand.
Cattail marsh in early spring, before new growth arrives; this is a monoculture stand.

A tall willow has dropped several of its weak branches into the muck; thistles grow thick on the other side, and stinging nettle grabs at my ankles. I’ll have welts for a few days. I usually wear long-sleeved shirts, and military pants that tie at the ankles, no matter how hot; it keeps the plants and insects at bay. Short-pants, today, stopping on impulse after work. I needed the rest from the world; worth a few mosquito bites and the stinging rebuke of plants.

I work my way out through the thistles and the entangling willow, and find myself on a groomed lawn, at the opposite side of the long park-strip that winds through this part of the city. A woman sits in the center of a man-made stone circle, a place for those strolling by to rest and meditate. If she sees me, she doesn’t look my way. I turn west, knowing the paths will link up eventually and spill me out onto the parking lot I’ve come from, a quarter mile away. Two hours have passed without a sense of time.
My bucket is full; two gallons of anthers, soon to be half a gallon of bright yellow pollen, which we’ll eat in pancakes, cookies, mixed into bread. In the traditional diet, thousands of years ago, it was a winter food, hoarded as a precious source of Vitamin C.  My ancestors collected this pollen, not for calories or taste, but to fight off the scurvy of January, February, March; before the first greens of spring are born. Today, no one notices the quiet lives of the plants that live beyond their gardens; we take for granted that food comes from farms far away, and scurvy is a thing of the past.
What was life like before work became work? How would a people think of foraging, if it was their entire life? We all must have been much calmer then, those of us who had access to the bounty of swamps and marshes. Why be ambitious or competitive, when it took the work of everyone, working equally hard, to provide enough food to last through a dark winter? And yet, why worry, in a world so full of food, so freely given? Pollen and greens in the spring, acorns in the fall, squirrels and rabbits year round. Ambition is the death of the world; as Dean Koontz said, “Everyone wants to make their mark on the world, but the earth never asked to be marked.”
Back at my car, I look back at the mucky, weedy streambed, and see no trace of my entrance. Cattail wall; unmarked. The red-winged blackbirds are back to their conversation, the one that does not mention me:

“Bur-cheeee!”

“Quirr-whit!”

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