Bulrushes (Typha latifolia)
There is an abundance of bulrushes growing on Wilden Marsh and some people consider them to be invasive. They have been a useful resource to our ancestors. In autumn, leaves were gathered for thatching material, as raw material for paper, and rayon has been made from their pulp. The stems were used for rush lighting, and the pollen, being highly inflammable, has been used to make home-made fireworks. The stems can also be woven into mats, hats, and seats for chairs.
The whole plant has been used medicinally, too: dried pollen may be used on wounds; being an anticoagulant, it will remove blood clots; when it is roasted with charcoal it becomes haemostatic, and is used for haemorrhages, painful menstruation and kidney stones, as well as uterine bleeding, cancer of the lymphatic system, abscesses and post-partum pains.
Bulrush has been used to relieve whooping cough, the roots have diuretic properties and said to promote milk flow in breast-feeding mothers. They have been used as tonics and for their refrigerant properties. Pounded to a jelly, they can be used as a poultice for wounds, cuts, burns and scalds.
The flowers have been used for stomach pains, lack of a woman’s periods, and irregular ones, as well as for cystitis. Eating the young flower heads is supposed to stop diarrhoea. The downy material from the seeds has been used to line a baby’s nappy and for wound dressings.
So in bygone times, before the advent of Tesco and the corner shop, when people living in Wilden Village needed medicines, food and building materials, I bet they popped down to Wilden Marsh to gather such provisions.
The Typha plant is very useful, edible, nutritious, and the starchy rhizome has a protein content similar to that of maize or rice. A flour with 266 kcal per 100 grams can be made from its root and pollen. Harvested from late autumn to early spring, the starch must be scraped or sucked from the tough fibres. Plants growing in polluted water can accumulate heavy metals and pesticide traces in their rhizomes – these should not be eaten.
The tough, fibrous outer leaves of a young plant should be peeled back to reveal its soft inner heart, which can be eaten raw or boiled. In early spring, the leaf bases of young plants can be eaten raw or cooked. In early summer the sheath can be removed from the developing green flower spike; this can then be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. In mid-summer when the male flowers are mature, the pollen can be collected and used as a flour supplement or thickener.
The roots may also be boiled, steamed, fried, or mashed with butter or sour cream much like potatoes.
The seeds have a high linoleic acid content and can be used to feed cattle and chickens.
The leaf fibres can be used as a cotton substitute for clothing manufacture.
Bulrushes are used to clean water in eco-friendly wastewater ponds. Aquatic plants, such as bulrushes, reeds, water lilies and yellow irises are natural water treatment plants able to balance the levels of nitrogen and phosphorus in the water, and are able to extract:
If you lived close to bulrushes a few hundred years ago, I guess you would consider yourself very fortunate, providing you were aware of the full range of benefits offered by this valuable plant.
One of the problems we have in using plants to naturally clean water in collection ponds is that the marsh cattle eat them. They drink the water the plants are supposed to be cleaning, too.