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Kharet, rząsy and pua… Can we digest pollen? Will hazel and cattail cakes become a new-old hip health food?

7th March 2021

I wonder why so few foragers ask about pollen. Actually, the view on the nutritional availability of pollen to us varies extremely among nutritionists and I wanted to systematize it by quoting the available few sources.

In the nineteenth century Poland’s poor peasants had a term przednówek, i.e. “before-the-new” for spring starvation or food shortages. They were saving on the last stores of grain by collecting hazel  (Corylus avellana) catkins covered by pollen (technically they are male inflorescences). These catkins were called rzęsy or rząsy (local name for eye-lashes). They added them to bread dough. This usually happened in March (or even February) but, later at the turn of March and April, people would also consume male catkins of sallow (Salix caprea) which were supposed to be good against colds (Łuczaj 2021).

Another pollen plant used for foraging is cattail (Typha). It produces a lot of pollen which has been used in some countries for food, i.e. in the Middle East, south-east Asia and by Maori in New Zealand and Native Americans in both North and South America (Prendergast et al. 2000). Also maize pollen was collected by the Indians  (Prendergast et al. 2000)

Pollen is very rich in nutrients. The pollen of insect pollinated plants is more nutritious than this of wind pollinated plants but is much scarcer (Linskens and Jorde 1997). According to one study pollen contains 11% fat, 36% carbohydrates and 23% proteins, being similar to dry pulses (Linskens and Jorde 1997).

Typha dominegenis pollen is widely sold in southern Iraq round the confluences of the Tigris and Euphrates. This pollen mixed with sugar and steamed is known as kharet and sold in the souks of Kuwait (Prendergast et al. 2000).  Typha is also known as food among the Maori of New Zealand, known there as pua (Prendergast et al. 2000). Maori would wrap leaves around the mixture of cattail pollen and water and steam it in a hangi (an earth oven). Colenso (1881) described the cooked cake as “sweetish and light, and reminds one strongly of London gingerbread”.

Pollen walls are made of two layers: intine and exine. Exine is extremely hard, but can have apertures: they are regions of the pollen wall that may involve exine thinning or a significant reduction in exine thickness. They enable shrinking and swelling of the grain caused by changes in moisture content. The digestive enzymes can enter pollen walls only through the apertures. Franchi (1997) carried out experiments on the digestion of hazel (Corylys avellana) and poppy (Papaver rhoeas)pollen. They were based on in vitro digestion with enzymes and environments similar to human digestive system (pepsin, papain and diastase, pancreatin and pancreatic lipase in optimial pH conditions). Hazel has relatively thin intine. After 24 treatment only 3% carbohydrates and 59% proteins in hazel pollen were digested. This shows the small availability of carobohyrates and relatively high availability of proteins. Only high pH treatment with pancreatic enzymes has an effect, whereas the acidic pH of stomach does not affect pollen.

Let’s look at bees, As Roulston and Cane (2000) write “Pollen digestion has been studied most extensively in bees, but a complex and somewhat confusing set of interpretations has emerged. Adult bees possess a crop, in which nectar and pollen may mix, thus providing a pre-treatment that could lead to germination or pseudo-germination. The crop leads through the proventricular valve to the gut, a region that differs substantially in osmotic pressure from the crop. Thus, pollen consumed by adult bees is subjected to immersion in a sugar solution followed by an abrupt osmotic gradient. In contrast, larval bees have no crop. Pollen enters the gut without internal exposure to nectar sugars or sudden changes in osmotic pressure. The pollen consumed by larval bees, however, is part of a food provision including a large quantity of nectar. Thus, larval pollen has been exposed to a liquid sugar environment prior to ingestion. For most bee species, larvae consume the pollen within a few ways of pollen collection. For honey bees, however, pollen may be stored in the hive for an extended period of time.”

The best way to enable the digestion of pollen is to cause germination and pseudo-germination by cracking pollen walls by osmotic pressure. No wonder in Iraq cattail pollen is mixed with sugar. Bees do it similarly storing the pollen with nectar. In Poland hazel catkins were used in sourdough bread which may also have had an effect on the digestibility of the pollen. The conclusion is the interior of pollen grains can be accessed by humans and partly digested. It can probably be highly increased by creating a high osmotic pressure storing the pollen in sugar (confirmed by traditional use) or salt (my hypothesis).

If you want to read about other Polish famine food, you are welcome to buy my book:


Prendergast, H.D., Kennedy, M.J., Webby, R.F. and Markham, K.R., 2000. Pollen cakes of Typha spp.[Typhaceae]-‘lost’and living food. Economic Botany, 54(3), pp.254-255.

Arenas, P. and Scarpa, G.F., 2003. The consumption of Typha domingensis Pers.(Typhaceae) pollen among the ethnic groups of the Gran Chaco, South America. Economic Botany, 57(2), pp.181-188.

Morton, J.F., 1975. Cattails (Typha spp.)—weed problem or potential crop?. Economic Botany, 29(1), pp.7-29.

Franchi, G.G., Franchi, G., Corti, P. and Pompella, A., 1997. Microspectrophotometric evaluation of digestibility of pollen grains. Plant foods for human nutrition, 50(2), pp.115-126.

Linskens, H.F. and Jorde, W., 1997. Pollen as food and medicine—a review. Economic Botany, 51(1), pp.78-86.

Roulston T.H. and Cane, J.H., 2000. Pollen nutritional content and digestibility for animals. Pollen and pollination, pp.187-209.

Colenso, W. 1881. On the vegetable food of the ancient New Zealanders before Cook’s visit.
Transac- tions and proceedings of the New Zealand Insti tute 13: 3-19

Łuczaj, Ł. 2021. Foraging in Eastern Europe: Wild edible plants in Polish traditional cuisine. Pietrusza Wola.

Many thanks to Kim Walker for sharing her photo of hazel catkins.


Hogweed, borscht and the food of people and bears

1st July 2020

Hogweed Heracleum is a common perennial of fertile meadows, roadsides and gardens. Its range encompasses Eurasia and North America. In Europe the commonest native species is common hogweed Heracleum sphondylium. Hogweed is a forgotten vegetable, once very important for the Slavs. Various species of hogweed are also used as food in North America, Russia,t he Cacasus and China (e.g. Hedrick 1919; Maurizo 1926, 1927; Hu 2005; Moerman 1998, etc.). The English name of the dish borscht (and similar names of the dish in Slavic languages, e.g. the Polish barszcz, and Russian borshch comes from the plant itself. A wider monograph of its use in Poland was written by Professor Rostafiński (1916) and the majority of information about it in this chapter comes from that work. The use of fermented leaves and stalks of hogweed in Poland, Russia and Lithuania was also mentioned in the famous English Herbal by Gerarde in 1597. He wrote:

“The people of Polonia and Lithuania use to make drinke with the decoction of this herbe and leuen or some other thing made of meal, which is used in stead of beere and other ordinary drinke”.

Of course it also appear in Polish herbals. And here is what Marcin from Urzędów wrote in his Polish Herbal from 1595:

“When hogweed is fermented in the Polish way, it is good to drink in fevers, thirsts, since it alleviates thirst and cholera, and greed for food is awakened by seasoning with it. (…) Seasoned with eggs and with butter and eggs it is good to eat on those days when the meat soup is not eaten, because it can be used as a meat soup”.

While Szymon Syreński in his Herbal from 1613 writes:

“Our hogweed is known to all of us, in Russia, in Lithuania, in Żmudź [i.e. Samogitia – a region of Lithuania] (…) It is very tasty as medicine and for the table. Both root and leaves. Although the root is only used for medicine, and the leaves for dishes. (…) The leaves are commonly gathered in May. (…) hogweed soup is tasty and good as it is made in our country, Russia and Lithuania. It is made either alone or with capons, or with other seasonings, like with eggs, cream, millets”.

Chopped stems, leaves and inflorescences were thrown into barrels or other containers with water poured over them. After a certain time they were fermented. Fermented hogweed could contain small amounts of alcohol. It was, then, something between beer and pickled cabbage. The fermentation of hogweed happens quickly. In a warm place by the stove, it becomes pleasantly sour in two days, and after a few days it smells stronger than pickled cabbage (pers. observations).

As previously mentioned, the seventeenth century sources consistently relate that  hogweed was in common use and was one of the main soups. It was also an ingredient of the menu of the professors of the oldest university in Poland, Jagiellonian University in Kraków: “Throughout the whole of Lent on Wednesdays hogweed was served as a soup, with peppered fish, vegetables and carp, and on the first day of Easter first beef clods with eggs, then hogweed, pork, capons with honey cakes, peas and lamb”. (Karbowiak 1900). King Władysław Jagiellończyk (who reigned both Poland and Hungary), when he visited the Hungarian capital missed the hogweed greens and ordered for it to be prepared (Rostafiński 1916).

A sparse account of the species in Priest Kluk’s Dykcyonarz roślinny (i.e. Plant Dictionary) bears witness to the fact that the use of hogweed got rare in the eighteenth century. However, Priest Ładowski in The History of the Natural Kingdom of Poland in 1783 writes: ”Soup is simply made, that they call borsch”. And Jundziłł in his Applied Botany from 1799 relates that hogweed “in our country in Lithuania only and in some other northern countries is used for food. The young leaves are collected, pickled usually with other vegetables of ours, and are often a peasant food. Or dried in the shade, in the shape of celery, kept for future use”.

Gerald Wyżycki also writes of hogweed in his Herbal, published in Vilnius (1845): “Our peasants collect leaves in spring, pickle them and boil a tasty dish out of them called borsch, it substitutes for pickled cabbage very well”.

At the end of the  nineteenth century borsch from hogweed was still a popular dish in the Polesie region, particularly in the former Pińsk area, now in Belarus (Secieszyn near Klecko, Rawonicze, Kuchcice, Kozmiatyna), and also in Nowogródek. A few letters in response to Rostafiński’s survey bear witness to this. A few pieces of information also exist on the consumption of hogweed soup  within the present borders of our country up until the mid XX century – in Łapsze in Spisz (Doliński 1982), in the area of Bielsko-Biała (Łuczaj & Szymański 2007), in northern  Podlasie (Pirożnikow 2008b, 2010). This soup was also known from the  nineteenth century in the north of the country, in the area of Kościerzyna I northern Poland (Łuczaj & Köhler 2012). The use of hogweed soup was also recorded in what is now western Belarus, east from the Białowieża forest in the area of Słonim, Wołkowysk and Prużanna. There it was called borszcz (in English spelling borshch), the same as the sour soup made from it (Graniszewska et al. 2013).

What is interesting that in some languages hogweed is associated with bears (see e.g. Latin names ursi branca). Further below I will quote (slightly modified) information from a passage which I wrote in our collective article about names of plants associated with bears The bear in Eurasian plant names: motivations and models led by a prominent Russian linguist Valeria Kolosova (Kolosova et al. 2017). Bears are typically omnivorous animals, their diet includes succulent shoots and leaves, fruits, insects, and meat (Bojarska and Selva 2011). Omnivory of the bear gave it in many cultures the attribute of medicine animal, knowing all the plants and foods in general. As bears were often believed to have supernatural powers (due to their size and long hibernation period) people observed with great attention bear’s way and the way they foraged. We can thus assume that a large proportion of bear names in plants referred to their diet. The literature on bear ecology gave us dozens of bear food plants, and some of them had bear-related names in some languages. The main example of such plants is hogweed (the genus Heracleum) reported as one of the mainspring foods of the bear from many countries, e.g. the USA, China, Japan, and Poland (e.g. Atwell et al. 1980, Hewitt and Robin 1996, McLellan BN, Hovey  1995; Schaller et al. 1996; Tomasz Kozica – pers. comm.). Also “bear’s garlic”, Allium ursinum, was reported as important bear food in Croatia (Kusak and Huber 1998). There was also an evidence from Mr. Sándor Tímár (Eastern Carpathians) of bears eating ramsons Allium ursinum and victory garlic A. victorialis (Hung. vadfokhagyma, wild garlic), though the plant was not named after bear in this area: “The bear does not eat anything during winter, he licks his paws, and licks so much that by spring they are white. And then he eats first from that plant (wild garlic), in order to clean his stomach from the “deposits”. He is such a clever animal. He searches for what he has to eat after the winter sleep” (Kolosova et al. 2017).

Bears eat a large diversity of wild fruits so it is not surprising that some of them got the names of bear berries, though it is probably impossible to say if it was because they were main fruits eaten by bears or rather those fruits which are less eaten by humans, left for the bears, like Arctostaphylos uvaursi. Bears have also been observed using plants for self- medication, so some of the plants which are not typical bear food or do not resemble bears in any way may have acquired their names from incidents of humans observing a bear using this plant as medicine. This was the case with Ligusticum porteri which was observed as being sought after by bears and was regarded as bear medicine by Native Americans (Sigstedt 2013). It is possible to assume that some plants – their fruits, stalks or rhizomes – were eaten by bears, though dialect dictionaries seldom give explanations, and we do not always know the folk ideas behind this or that nomination.”

The literature cited above makes me think that bears could become an inspiration (and probably have been such inspiration in the past!) for humans searching for food in the woods and woodland clearings. What is also hopeful is that such a large “carnivorous” animal can sustain itself for weeks only on vegan food. Please note, however, that the more north you go, the less vegan the bears are.


Atwell, G., Boone, D.L., Gustafson, J., Berns, V.D., 1980. Brown bear summer use of alpine habitat on the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge. In: Pelton MR, Lentifer JW, Folk GE, editors. Bears: their biology and management. Papers and proceedings of the International Conference on Bear Research and Management 4. Morges: International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, p. 297–305.

Bojarska, K., Selva, N., 2011 Spatial patterns in brown bear Ursus arctos diet: the role of geographical and environmental factors. Mammal Reviews. 42(2), 120–43.

Graniszewska, M., Leśniewska, H., Mankiewicz-Malinowska, A. and Galera, H., 2013. Rośliny użyteczne… Michała Fedorowskiego – dzieło odnalezione po 130 latach. Useful plants… by Michal Fedorowski–the work found after 130 years, Etnobiologia Polska 3, 63-120.

Hedrick, U.P. (ed.), 1919. Sturtevant’s Edible Plants of the World. New York: Dover Publications.

Hewitt,  D.G., Robbins, C.T., 1996. Estimating grizzly bear food habits from fecal analysis. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 547–550.

Hu, S.Y., 2005. Food plants of China. Hongkong: The Chinese University Press.

Karbowiak, A., 1900. Obiady profesorów Uniwersytetu Jagiellońskiego w XVI i XVII wieku. Kraków: Towarzystwo Miłośników Historyi i Zabytków Krakowa.

Kluk, K., 1786-1788. Dykcyonarz Roślinny. Tomy 1-3 [reprint 1805-1811]. Warszawa: Drukarnia Xięży Piarów.

Kolosova, V., Svanberg, I., Kalle, R., Strecker, L., Özkan, A.M.G., Pieroni, A., Cianfaglione, K., Molnár, Z., Papp, N., Łuczaj, Ł. and Dimitrova, D., 2017. The bear in Eurasian plant names: motivations and models. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine, 13, 14.

Kusak, J., Huber, D., 1998. Brown bear habitat quality in Gorski kotar, Croatia. Ursus, 10:281–91.

Ładowski, R., 1783. Historya naturalna Królestwa Polskiego. Kraków: Drukarnia Ignacego Gröbla.

Łuczaj, Ł., Köhler, P., 2011. Liście i inne zielone części dziko rosnących roślin w pożywieniu mieszkańców Polski i Kresów na podstawie ankiet Józefa Rostafińskiego (XIX w.) i Józefa Gajka (XX w.). Przegląd Historyczny, 52(4):733–70.

Łuczaj, Ł., Szymański, W.M. 2007. Wild vascular plants gathered for consumption in the Polish countryside: a review. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 3: 17.

Łuczaj, Ł.J. and Kujawska, M., 2012. Botanists and their childhood memories: an underutilized expert source in ethnobotanical research. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 168(3), 334-343.

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McLellan, B.N., Hovey, F.W., 1995. The diet of grizzly bears in the Flathead River drainage of southeastern British Columbia. Canadan Journal of Zoology, 73(4):704–12.

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Siege of Sarajevo and wild edible plants

30th March 2020

In times of impeding crisis, it’s worth reaching for the experiences from attempts at survival in situations of total crisis which don’t go that far back. One such great challenge for the nations of former Yugoslavia were the wars started after Yugoslavia’s breakup. The civil war which took place between 1991–1995 was the most bloody conflict in Europe since World War II. During this time, the part of former Yugoslavia that suffered the most was Bosnia and Hercegovina, an ethnically and religiously diverse republic located between Croatia and Serbia. One of the stages of this war was the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 1430 days, from April 5th to February 29th 1996, and was led by the forces of the Serbian Republic and the Yugoslav People’s Army from the capital of Bosnia and Hercegovina against the majority, who wanted Bosnia and Herzegovina to be independent.

For the greater part of this siege, there was no electricity in the city, and people managed to sustain themselves thanks to the gardens surrounding their houses, green spaces in the city, and aid dropped by the army. In mid-1993 a 800 metre tunnel opened underneath the airport. It was the only route connecting the city under siege with the free part of the country inhabited by Bosnians. It allowed for them to transfer weapons and food.

One of the great figures of this siege was prof. Sulejman Redžić (1953-2014), a botanist who created shows on his radio station on how to enrich one’s diet by picking plants in the city, and then wrote a work that documented human nutrition during the siege. Sadly, this researcher was found dead in a forest near Sarajevo at the peak of his scientific career. The circumstances of his death are uncertain and may even point to political motives.

I first encountered Sulejman when reviewing his article. He then invited me to lecture as a guest at a plenary session of a conference he was organising. Spending time in Sarajevo, I heard many stories on how people coped with nutrition, both from Sulejman and his assistants as well as other Bosnians I had the chance to meet.

Life was really difficult. There was a shortage of everything. People ate whatever they could make out of airdropped pasta or powdered milk, they searched for nettles, and most of the space in gardens was taken up by vegetable patches. The first winter was the worst. There were even shortages of water and people hid from artillery fire in empty, unheated flats. Many people lost 20-30 kg of their body mass.

After surviving the first year and digging the tunnel, people started to cope better.  

Here’s a link to an article on the use of wild plants for survival in Sarajevo:

Redžić, S., 2010. Use of wild and semi-wild edible plants in nutrition and survival of people in 1430 days of siege of Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1992–1995). Collegium Antropologicum34(2), pp.551-570.

He later also wrote an article on the use of mushrooms and lichens in a different region of Bosnia and Hercegovina:

Redzic, S., Barudanovic, S. and Pilipovic, S., 2010. Wild mushrooms and lichens used as human food for survival in war conditions; Podrinje-Zepa Region (Bosnia and Herzegovina, W. Balkan). Human Ecology Review, pp.175-187.

Young leaves and stems were the most often eaten parts of plants. The most frequently eaten plants were: nettles (Urtica dioica), dandelions (Taraxacum officinale), coltsfoot (Tussilago farfara), common chicory (Cichorium intybus) and the common mallow (Malva sylvestris). Other often eaten species included the amaranth (Amaranths retroflexus), the common houseleek (Sempervivum tectorum), sorrel (Rumex patientia and R. acetosa), the common primrose (Primula vulgaris) and parsnip (Pastinaca sativa) roots. Other than that, they used the white clover (Trifolium repens), chickweed (Stellaria media), charlock mustard (Sinapis arvensis), wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum), spotted dead-nettle (Lamium maculatum) as well as the bulbs of the Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus).

I was very moved by the conference in Sarajevo and my meetings with its inhabitants. I fell in love with the Balkans. Thanks to one conversation in the pub in the evening after lectures, with, among others, some researchers from Croatia, I started studying wild vegetables sold on the Dalmatian coast the following year. Since then I’ve gone to do research in The Balkans a few times a year, which, in the past few years, has been possible thanks to my NCN grant no. 2015/19/B/HS3/00471 entitled Traditional collection of wild edible plants on the islands of Dalmatia. Maybe now thanks to the quarantine in Europe I will find more time to write about this on my blog…

With prof. Sulejman Redžić in Blagaj, a dervish monastery near Mostar

Conference attendees – mainly researchers on medicinal plants in Balkan and Middle Eastern countries and Turkey

Tunnel connecting Sarajevo with the world during the siege

Prof. Redžić talks about crossing the tunnel