By Kevin Short / Special to The Japan NewsI was born and raised in New York, but every summer my family moved to a small, hand-built cottage in the Appalachian Highlands. Although only an hour’s drive from the city, this was a completely different world of dairy farms, apple orchards and steep forested slopes. We children spent the days exploring, playing baseball and swimming in the lakes and rivers.
After dinner, we would all gather outside to talk and play games. Every boy and girl brought with them two or three dried “punks.” These were long brown, sausage-shaped cylinders of plant material, looking a bit like a slightly overcooked hot dog on a stick. When lit at the top they would burn slowly, and the heavy smoke helped keep the hordes of mosquitoes and flies at bay.
Every few days we children would set off on an adventurous journey to collect these punks. We followed a creek high up into the mountains to a wide marsh, where the punks grew in profusion in the shallows near the banks.
At that time I had no idea what our punks actually were. Only later did I find out that they are aquatic plants more properly called cattails, or bulrushes in England. I also learned that the base of the stalks, as well as the underground rhizomes, are edible and that the brown cylinders develop into thousands of tiny seeds fitted with fine hairs that float away on the winter wind.
Cattails are classified in the genus Typha. There are about 30 species identified worldwide. The most common of these, the common cattail (T. latifolia), enjoys a cosmopolitan distribution, including almost all of Japan. The Japanese word gama serves as both a generic term for cattails and the specific name for T. latifolia.
Cattails are monoecious species, which means that they have separate male and female flowers, but both types occur on each plant. The flowers bloom at the top of long stalks that arise directly from the base of the plants. Thousands of female flowers form a compact cylindrical structure that can be up to 20 centimeters long. The male flowers, also numbering in the thousands, attach just above the female flowers and emit copious amounts of yellow pollen that are carried away on the wind. They wilt as soon as they have released all of their pollen.
Japan is also home to two other species of cattail. The himegama or princess cattail (T. domingensis) is thinner, with a clear gap between the male and female flowers. The kogama or little cattail (T. orientalis) has much smaller cylinders and thinner leaves.
Gama make a well-known appearance in the Izumo Cycle of Japan’s classic mythology. Okuninushi, the great hero of the Izumo stories, encounters a hare that has had his fur ripped to pieces by ferocious sea monsters. Okuninushi advises the suffering hare to wash his cuts and scrapes in river water, then roll around in cattail pollen. This relieves the skin sores, and the grateful hare prophesizes that Okuninushi will win the hand of a beautiful princess.
This story takes place along the Inaba Coast of modern-day Tottori Prefecture, and is still celebrated today at the Hakuto Jinja or White Hare Shrine. This myth records the actual use of a traditional medicinal plant. Cattail pollen, called hoo, is still available today at well-stocked Kanpo herbal medicine pharmacies. The pollen can be applied directly to soothe minor scrapes and burns.
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