Typha orientalis, Typha domingensis
In the plant world it is more often spelt “Cumbungi”, but this is the plant that gave its name to our local small town, where it grew in the creek.
Like most water plants, it has spread from its original, unknown, point of origin somewhere in the world, to become a native plant in many parts of it. In Australia it is also known as “bulrush”, and is familiar to us from illustrations of the story of Moses in children’s bibles of British origin, which show a closely related Typha species.(These illustrations may be the result of a misunderstanding. It is more likely that the “bulrushes” of the bible were papyrus plants, Cyperus papyrus, a kind of sedge.)
In the U.S.A, the narrow-leafed cumbungee T. domingensis goes by the common names of cat-tails, or corndog grass. In New Zealand, the robust broad-leafed cumbungee T. orientalis is the native species, and is called raupo.
Both local species of Cumbungi are tall plants with strappy leaves and robust
flower stems. They spread to form large clumps, and are able to grow in
water up to 2m deep.They are somewhat difficult to tell apart, as their "bulrushes" look very similar. However, T. orientalis has wider (3cm) leaves, which are somewhat blue-green, as opposed to the narrower, grass-green leaves of T. domingensis.
The narrow-leafed species tends to be "weedier", being more able to take advantage of temporary water, or wet places where the water comes and goes. The broad-leaved plant likes a consistent habitat and is generally less tolerant.
Male and female flowers develop on each flowering stem. They begin by looking rather similar – just a velvety coating of green at the top of the stem, with male flowers at the tip, and female just below. The male flowers produce copious quantities of yellow pollen which is spread by the wind. Having done their job, they fall off leaving a bare spike above the female flowerhead, which turns brown and thickens to its characteristic “sausage” shape.
Typha species may once have been a major component of the Toowoomba swamp, before it was cleared and drained by early white settlers to build what is now our inner city. They have also been cleared from many of our natural waterways, in the belief that by impeding the water flow they increased flood damage in surrounding areas. Unfortunately, the flip-side of this clearing has been widespread loss of fertile soil and erosion damage to the banks of these creeks and rivers, as the unimpeded water has flowed so much faster through unprotected drainage lines.
Where they still grow in the wild, cumbungi provide much-needed food and shelter for water birds, frogs, and other wildlife. They are often planted as "reed beds", for their value in cleaning up pollution in waterways and wetlands, or for purifying household grey water. T. domingensis is salt tolerant, so is also valuable in reclaiming saline land.
Despite their usefulness, they are often regarded as weeds because of their vigorous colonisation of farm dams and irrigation channels. One would hesitate to grow such plants in a garden pond, but they can be used for dramatic effect if restricted to strong tubs.
A florist’s delight, cumbungi provide long-lasting strappy leaves and ornamental flowerheads, which must be cut soon after they turn brown if they are to retain their shape as they dry. If cut when they are older, they will burst as they dry out (releasing their seeds in the house and making an annoying mess).
Typha species are used for food all around the world. The female flowers are edible, raw or cooked, while they are still green. The male flowers shed such a quantity of their yellow pollen that people in various countries, including Australia, collect it to eat. It is very nutritious, and said to have a rich, nutty flavour.
Collecting it is a matter of keeping an eye on the bulrushes in springtime until they reach the right stage of ripeness. It is time to harvest it when a gentle tap causes clouds of yellow pollen to be released. A pair of tall gumboots and a large bowl are the necessary collecting equipment. The pollen can be collected by bending the male flower over the bowl and tapping the stem. Expect a small spoonful per flower.
In traditional Maori cooking, the pollen is used to make a kind of bread called “pungapunga”. A quantity of pollen is wrapped in leaves or sewn into bags made of strips of bark, then cooked in a hole in the ground, in which heated stones had been placed.
A modern version of the Maori recipe advises mixing 500g pollen with ½ a cup of water, placing it in a greased bowl, and steaming it for two hours. Alternatively, it can be simply cooked like porridge, added to rice dishes for colour and flavour, or added to pancakes, scones, and cakes.
The thick white roots are also a food that is produced in belly-filling quantities, and are much used by aborigines who live the traditional lifestyle. The bits to harvest are the white shoots, which are produced in spring and summer. They grow horizontally in the mud, then turn upwards to become a new, leafy reed. Cut at about the time they make the turn, they produce a couple of inches of pleasantly flavoured vegetable which can be eaten raw (but peel it first), or boiled, baked, or microwaved. Further away from the tip, the rhizomes are too fibrous to make good eating. However aborigines extract the starch by peeling them, laying them in front of a fire to cook, then twisting the fibres and shaking out a floury substance.