Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Scirpus species

By Adam Benfer

There are a variety of species of bulrushes (Scirpus sp.) in the Americas, all of which grow in moist environments and can be used as a wild and nutritional addition to the human diet. This reed-like plant is also known as tule, wool grass, and rat grass (Marles et al. 2000: 277; Moerman 1998: 522-523)


Bulrushes are erect perennial, grass-like plants with one three-sided stem that can grow up to 3 meters (9 ft) tall and has leaves between 4 and 6 mm wide. The rhizomes (or roots) produce edible tubers. During the period of April through August the tips of bulrushes bloom with clumps of reddish brown or straw-colored flowers that turn into hard seed-like fruits (Clarke 1977: 142; Medve and Medve 1990: 130).

Geographic Distribution

Bulrushes can be found in the same environments as cattails. More specifically they are found growing in marshy or swampy areas, shallow lake water, and slow moving streams throughout North America and Eurasia (Clarke 1977: 142; Marles et al. 2000: 277; Medve and Medve 1990: 130).

Food Use

The seeds, pollen, young shoots, stem base, inner part of the stem, and roots (rhizomes) of bulrushes are edible. Bulrushes can be used to make flour, syrup, or sugar and prepared in a raw salad or as a cooked vegetable. Flour can be made from the pollen, ground seeds, and dried rhizomes (131). In Montana some Native Americans boiled bulrush roots in water to make syrup. This syrup can be dried out to produce sugar. The pollen can also be used to make cakes, just like cattail pollen. The seeds of Saltmarsh Bulrush (S. maritimus) and Threesquare Bulrush (S. pungens) were parched by the Paiute before being ground into flour and cooked into porridge (Moerman 1998: 521-524).

Other Uses

Bulrushes can be used for both medicinal and craft purposes as well. A poultice of the Hardstem and Softstem Bulrush (S. tabernaemontani) stems can be used to stop bleeding and treat snakebites. The Malecite and Micmac processed the roots of Panicled Bulrush (Scirpus microcarpus) to make a treatment for abscesses. The stems can be used to make baskets, mats, mattresses, hats, temporary shelters, doors, curtains, rafts, canoes, brooms, and a number of other items (521-524).


Not much about the nutritional value of bulrushes is known, however a study has shown that “bulrush shoots provide 42 kcal of food energy and 0.9 g of minerals (ash) per 100 g fresh weight” (Marles et al. 2000: 277)


Bulrush Flour Recipe 1: (Clarke 1977: 143)

1) Place cleaned bulrush roots in the sun or in an oven on low heat for a long enough period of time for them to become dry.
2) Grind the dried roots and sift out all fibers.
3) Pound the remaining bulrush pulp into a fine flour.
4) Use this sweet flower in place of wheat flower.

Bulrush Flour Recipe 2: (143)

1) Boil cleaned and peeled bulrush roots into a mush.
2) Strain the mush to remove all fibers.
3) This mush can be used wet or evaporated to make a sweet flour.


Clarke, Charlotte Bringle
1977 Edible and Useful Plants of California, California Natural History Guides. Berkeley: University of California Press. Marles, Robin James, Canada. Natural Resources Canada., and Canadian Forest Service.
2000 Aboriginal plant use in Canada's northwest boreal forest. Vancouver: UBC Press.
Medve, Richard J., and Mary Lee Medve
1990 Edible wild plants of Pennsylvania and neighboring states. University Park [Pa.]: Pennsylvania State University Press. Moerman, Daniel E.
1998 Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.