Today’s plant for #WildEdibleWednesday is hands-down one of the most useful wild plants you can know. Not only is it a four-season edible and a decent medicinal plant, it’s one of the few plants that can truly secure all four of your survival priorities. It’s the Wal-Mart of the swamp – providing food, medicine, building material, and fire starter. We’re talking, of course, about Typha latifolia, the Common Cattail.
Cattail is herbaceous aquatic grasslike plant that grows anywhere there’s clean, fresh water. It thrives on the edges of lakes and ponds, in swamps, and along slow-moving creeks and rivers. It’s tenacious and opportunistic, and can be found in drainage ditches, irrigation canals, and catch ponds. They spread through both seeds and creeping rhizomes, and are considered invasive in some areas. The genus Typha has species in temperate and subtropical areas worldwide. Chances are, no matter where you are in the world, if you can find still water, you can find cattails, from the Arctic Circle to the jungle. These are tough plants – I harvested some nearly a year ago for a Winter Wild Edibles class at REI and stuck them in a five gallon bucket to keep the roots wet and promptly forgot about them. They sprouted out come spring, flowered, went to seed, and couldn’t have been happier. Their only kryptonite is water pollution. Cattails filter water, so if there’s too much agricultural runoff, heavy metals, industrial chemicals, or other nasty stuff in the water, it’ll kill them. If you didn’t catch that, it means that if you’re in a survival situation and you find cattails, the water they’re growing in is most likely safe-ish to drink.
Cattails are easily recognizable, and have only one toxic mimic. The Yellow Flag is a species of aquatic iris that frequents similar habitat and overlaps with cattail in some areas of the world. The leaves look similar and it spread through rhizomes as well, so misidentification is possible. Yellow flag produces bright yellow flowers in the classic iris shape, and does not produce cattail’s trademark hotdog seed heads. So if you’re in a marsh full of plants that you’re not sure of, always look for cattail seed heads. They’ll be prolific no matter the time of year. On the off chance you haven’t seen one, they’re a tall, grassy-looking plant that always grows in water. They usually range from 4-7 feet tall, with a few dozen flat, blade-like leaves 1-3 inches wide. In mid-spring they send up a flower stalk that’s basically just a pollen spear… 4-8 inches long, greenish yellow, and cylindrical. Over the course of summer, those flower stalks turn into sausage-like seedheads that look remarkably like an overcooked hot dog. They’re dark brown and have a firm, fuzzy texture.
Cattails are a prime wild edible, and one that can be sourced year-round. When in bloom, the pollen can be harvested by shaking out the flowers. This pollen is a high-protein, high-carb powder that can be used as a flour of sorts. The young seedheads can be roasted over a fire (they even come with their own built-in stick!) and are great with a little bit of butter and seasoning salt. Eat them like corn on the cob. The young shoots (available from late February through April in GA) are delicious as well – just pull a root, clean it up, and snap the young shoot off the rhizome. They have a nice crunchy texture and a flavor that’s a little reminiscent of a cucumber. They’re good sautéed, stir-fried, added to soup, or just straight from the water. But for real sustenance, the root is what you’re after. Cattails grow from a thick, starchy rhizome that’s about as big around as most people’s index finger. These rhizomes form a near-impenetrable interlaced network of roots in the soft mud where the plants grow, so you can secure a large amount of food quickly if you find a cattail stand. To harvest, use a pitchfork and gently pry up until you can grab a plant by the base, and gently wiggle it out of the mud so you don’t break the roots. Last time I did this, I got about 10lbs of roots in as many minutes. Harvesting them is easy. Processing them to eat is a different matter.
First, rinse the mud off your roots and lay them out. Test each one by cutting it open, if it’s brown and squishy, it’s dead. Throw it away. Good roots will snap crisply and are a bright white on the inside. Using the spine of your knife, scrape the roots to get the stringy rootlets and outer sheath off. You don’t have to peel them per se, just clean them up. If you’re fortunate enough to find young tender roots (most common in spring and early summer), those can be cut into ½” pieces and eaten whole. They’re best when cooked for a good minute… throw them in a soup or stew (helps thicken it nicely), pan-sautee them, bake them, or fry them. They have an inoffensive, starchy flavor that tastes a lot like whatever you season them with. The key to eating them this way is getting young, tender roots. Older roots are almost pure fiber and way too stringy, and there’s not much you can do about it, except harvest the starch from them.
Here’s how to do that. Be forewarned, this is an extremely messy and time-consuming process. But, if you’re in a survival situation, this will guarantee you some nutritious, carbohydrate-rich cattail starch to keep you going. First, split the roots lengthwise. If they’re small, you can get away with splitting them in two, if they’re larger, you’ll need to quarter them. Take either the blade of your knife or the spine and turn it 90 degrees to the root, and start scraping. Pretty quickly you’ll start to accumulate a pile of wet white paste that looks a lot like corn starch. Repeat the process until you get all you want. You can either use the starch as it is to thicken soups, or you can spread it thin on a cookie sheet and put it in the oven (if you’re at home) or spread it thin in a skillet or on a flat rock (if you’re in the woods) to dry it out and bake it. This is how you make cattail flour. Keep it handy for whatever you’d use flour for. You can even bake bread with it. Pro tip – if you want to make a higher-quality flour, dump your starch in a bowl of water first. The leftover root fibers will float to the top so you can scoop them off. Carefully drain the water and you’re left with pure cattail starch. Be warned, however, this stuff is not gluten free if that’s a concern to you.
Cattail starch has a nearly identical nutritional profile to wheat or corn flour, and behaves very much the same in recipes. Cattail roots produce more starch per acre of land than any other plant, and can be harvested multiple times a year. In fact, near the end of World War II, there was a plan in place to harvest cattail starch on an industrial scale to feed the troops, however, the war ended before the plan was brought to fruition and cattail starch production was never pursued on a large scale in this country.
Medicinally, cattail’s prime use is external. Mash up the roots to make a poultice, and use it to treat burns, scrapes, sores, cuts, bruises, and even acne. It does a great job of reducing inflammation, and has a cooling effect on the skin. The ash from burned leaves can also be incorporated into a medicinal salve.
In the first paragraph of this post, I stated that cattail can help you secure or augment all four of your core survival priorities. So far we’ve got water (always grows in it), and food (year-round edible). What about shelter and fire?
Cattail leaves make an excellent shelter material, especially when they’re fresh. The leaves are long, straight, easy to work with, and extremely abundant. Gather bundles of them and put them tips down on your natural shelters for a quick and easy roof. Stack them thick and secure them at the top and they do a great job of keeping you dry. These thick, sturdy leaves also serve as a great material for a wide variety of weaving projects. You can use them to weave baskets, grass mats, bags, or even clothing.
For fire, the most obvious use of cattail is to use the seed fluff as flash tinder. Those sausage-esque seed heads are extremely tightly packed, so much so that they’re waterproof until broken open. A little goes a long way – one seed head can easily fill a quart Ziploc bag. Harvesting only a few dozen of these will provide you with a year’s supply of tinder. Cattail heads are also super lightweight and easy to carry. Those same seed heads can make a handy torch – cut the end off, dip it in oil or fat, and light it up. If you allow time for the oil to wick into the fluff, it’ll burn for hours. And as far as actual firecraft, I’ve been told that the stalks make a great spindle for the hand drill method of friction fire. I have never tried this, though, so one of y’all who’s more proficient in primitive fire will have to let me know if it works.
All of these uses just go to show that cattail is one of the most useful plants you can know. There are very few others I can think of that can help you secure fire, water, food, and shelter so easily. In addition, cattails are widespread and abundant. Since they spread so quickly, you’ll never see just one. More likely, you’ll find a huge swath of thousands of plants along a shoreline, which will provide you with loads of food, shelter, and fire-buildign material. And since they regenerate so quickly, you can take all you want without worrying about over-harvesting. So whether you call it cattail, bulrush, pond sausage, or swamp corndog, you can always call it one thing: indispensable.
What about you? Do you know any other uses for cattails? Have you ever harvested cattail starch, or munched on a roasted seedhead? And especially, have you ever used a stalk as a hand drill spindle? Tell us in the comments!