Everyone knows cattail, even people who say they know nothing about botany or wild foods. Why? Because mature cattail spikes have long been a staple in fall decorations, appearing in homes, parties and even at funerals. Plus, they grow everywhere. If you live near a stream or river, chances are you’ve seen the tall grass-like leaves waving in the wind, and the brown hot-dogs-onsticks, which are the mature flower spikes. In many areas, the cattails are the dominant plant in roadside ditches where water settles and collects.
Not only is the plant truly ubiquitous wherever there’s water, but it’s also an incredibly useful plant – one that you really should know.
Let’s review the many uses of the cattail plant, starting with the food uses. Note: If you are uncertain about the purity of the water in which you are collecting cattails, do not eat them raw, but be sure to cook them.
CATTAIL IN THE KITCHEN
In the spring, the new flowers appear as green bloom spikes (soon to be the decorative brown cattail stalk). These tender spikes make an excellent vegetable when still young and green, requiring only 10 to 20 minutes of boiling. They can also be roasted, buttered and eaten like corn-on-the-cob.
As these early green spikes get taller, a fine yellow pollen forms at the very top of each flower stalk. This pollen can be easily gathered without harming the plants by shaking the heads into a bag or neckerchief. Once sifted, the pollen can be easily blended with regular flour or used alone to make delicious foods, such as yellow-colored bread, muffins and pancakes.
The cattail plant expands by the sprawling underground growth of rhizomes, or underground roots. This great underground network of rhizomes grow horizontally a few inches below ground level. They are about one inch thick, consisting of a fibrous core and a spongy outer layer.
To gather rhizomes, you go into the swamp and pull them out of the mud and gunk, so don’t do this if you’re really particular about staying “clean.” You then remove the rhizome’s spongy outer layer, and it’s the inside part that you want. I have eaten it asis, pulled from the swamp, and though a little fibrous, it’s both sweet and filling.
Rhizomes can be processed into a flour whose carbohydrate (77 percent), protein (8 percent) and fat (2 percent) content is comparable to corn and rice. The Iroquois people dried the rhizomes, pounded them and then sifted out the fiber. The resultant flour was used for bread.
“THERE IS NOTHING I WOULD RATHER DO THAN EAT MY WAY THROUGH A ROADSIDE DITCH.”
The rhizomes can be processed by a method suggested by Euell Gibbons, author of Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Fill a large container with cold water and then crush the cores by hand in the water until the fiber is separated. The flour is allowed to settle to the bottom and then the fiber can be poured out. Repeat this two to three times until the flour is free of fiber. This flour can then be used wet or dried for later use.
Just above the rhizome where the base of a shoot connects, there is found a sizeable lump of nutritious carbohydrate material called the heart or the root (not a root, botanically). Though they can be eaten raw, the hearts are generally peeled, then cooked (or baked) and seasoned as you’d prepare Jerusalem artichokes, turnips, or potatoes. As the plant sends up its flower stalk this starchy core becomes tougher and less palatable.
In the winter and spring, the young cattail shoots can be eaten. Pulling back the outer green leaves, grasp the white inner leaves of the young shoot and pull it up. Approximately the bottom 12 inches of the shoots are eaten since this is the most tender and palatable. The outer green fibrous layers should be peeled back to get to the tender insides. This is probably the best food from the cattail, described by various people as tasting like celery or cucumber. These peeled shoots can be added raw to salads or eaten as is, or can be boiled, baked and added to stews as a wild vegetable. These shoots are commonly referred to as Cossack asparagus, due to the Cossacks’ fondness for this food. One hundred grams, or ½ cup, of this shoot contains 58 milligrams of calcium, 109 milligrams of phosphorus, 639 milligrams of potassium and 76 milligrams of vitamin C.
The very young, round and pointed, stillwhite underground shoots (soon to develop into the long erect leaves of the young plant), which arise about an inch or two from the starchy core, can also be eaten either raw or cooked.
Their Many Uses
And the long leaves have many uses, as do the fluff from the mature flower spikes. Let’s start with the leaves.
The long, erect leaves are used in making rush chairs, sandals, mats and other craft items. To use, first collect the long cattail leaves and put them out to dry, ideally in the shade. Then, when you’re ready to weave, moisten them a bit to make them pliable. I have made twine from the dried cattail leaves. Such a twine is okay for applications where the twine is not under constant pressure. It would not be good for the cord in a bow-drill, for example. I’ve made mats, shade hats and sandals. When I was just learning how to make things from cattail, I used Outdoor Survival Skills by Larry Dean Olsen as my “teacher.” Another good reference is Paul Campbell’s Survival Skills of Native California.
When the brown flower spikes mature they can be easily broken and mature fluff flies all over. If you look closely, you will see that each seed is attached to a bit of this fluff which acts as a parachute to transport the cattail seeds all over the swamp. This cattail down can be used to stuff pillows or blankets. I once used about 10 mature cattail spikes to revive a down sleeping bag, and I used the sleeping bag for another two years.
During World War II, schoolchildren in the United States collected mature cattail spikes as well as mature milkweed pods. The down from the cattail spikes and the milkweed pods was used as a substitute for kapok, which was used in items such as life preservers and sleeping bags. During the war, the primary source of kapok stuffing (a tree by the same name) was under Japanese control. Thus alternatives were found with cattail and milkweed down, with traits only slightly inferior to goose down.
This cattail fluff is also an excellent tinder for getting a flame. Once you fluff up the cattail, you can simply direct a spark into the fluff and it explodes into flame. The spark can come from a flint and steel, or a ferrocerium rod.
Additionally, I have long heard that the cattail fluff can be pressed into wounds to stop bleeding. I have tried this, and after a cut that could have used at least two stitches, I pressed some cattail fluff into the wound and applied direct pressure for a few minutes. I never got the stitches and the wound healed well.
The stalks of the cattail flower spike are stiff and they make great chopsticks. I have heard that some individuals use these stems for hand drills but I have never had much success with that.
Cattails plants can be found year-round in swamp and marsh areas and along the banks of permanent bodies of water, such as streams, ponds, rivers and irrigation ditches. Cattails grow throughout most of the world and are common in North and South America, Europe, Asia and northern Africa.
Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide.
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