scirpusacutusCommon name: hard-stem bulrush or tule

Scientific name: Scirpus acutus or Schoenoplectus acutus

Plant family:  Cyperaceae

Description: Scirpus acutus is a perennial monocot whose thick and stiff culms (or stalks) can grow up to 15 feet high. The inflorescence of S. acutus is composed of clusters of red-brown spikelets. These flowers are very small, lack petals, and are concealed by overlapping scales that are spirally arranged, thus forming the spikelets. The plant produces fruits in the form of nutlets, which are about 1.5-2.5mm in length. S. acutus has rhizomes from which roots and stems arise.

Habitat and range: S. acutus is most commonly found in places that have shallow standing water such as marshes, ponds, lakes, and seeps, though it may also be found on stream banks or in wet grasslands. In some cases, it can be found in mountain meadows, plains grasslands, or prairies. S. acutus generally lives at low to mid elevations; in Oregon, it typically lives below 4,000ft. S. acutus is prolific throughout North America, and can be found in almost all 50 of the United States, including Oregon, Washington, and California.

Historical and contemporary uses: Among the Salish peoples of interior British Columbia, tule stems were used to make mats that could then be traded for other goods.[1] Because of the sturdy and buoyant nature of tule stems, the Chumash Indians of southern California used these stems to build plank canoes by bundling the stems together and then binding the bundles. The Chumash also used the stems to make mats and skirts as well as thatch roofs.[2] Some unidentified tribes of the Pacific Northwest would gather stems in November after they had turned brown. They would lay these stems out and sew them into large mats using hemp twine.[3] These mats could then be used for temporary shelters, doors and window flaps as well as mats for drying meat and berries. Mats could also be woven into bags for storing food. It is unclear whether these practices continue currently.

The tule stem is the most commonly used part of the plant for food, but the rhizome, roots, and pollen have also been eaten historically. The stems may be eaten raw or cooked, although stems have been primarily eaten raw. The Northern Paiute tribes of California and Oregon, for example, ate the shoots of S. acutusraw.

[1] Turner, Nancy J. and Dawn C. Loewen. 1998. The Original “Free Trade”: Exchange of Botanical Products and Associated Plant Knowledge in Northwestern North America. Anthropologica 40(1): 49-70.

[2] Timbrook, Jan. 1990. Ethnobotany of Chumash Indians, California, Based on Collections by John P. Harrington.Economic Botany 44(2): 236-253.