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Cattail

(Typha spp.)

Perhaps second only to the Dandelion in familiarity and ease of recognition, Cattails (Typha spp.), are the closest thing you will find to a wild grocery store. Cattail is one of the only wild plants that is a good source of carbohydrates. This life giving starch was a staple of Native American tribes. Due of its proliferation, cattail was never cultivated. It quite simply grows everywhere. Unlike many wild edibles, a stand of cattail remains a viable food source all year long. I am bothered that there are numerous people in this country that go to bed hungry each night, when growing right outside their door is a cornucopia of wild delicacies.

Other Names:

Cat-o-nine-tail, Punks, Corn Dog Grass

Range:

Identifying characteristics:

Growth Type:

This perennial aquatic plant is easily recognizable by the distinctive cigar shaped flower spike that occurs at the top of a long stalk extending upward through a cluster of pale green, tape like leaves. It is important to note that the leaves wrap around and tightly sheath the stalk toward its base, and often extend below the water surface.

These characteristics allow it to be easily distinguished from the poison Blue Flag, or Wild Iris. Blue Flag only reaches 2ft in height. The leaves of the Blue Flag do not sheath the flower stem, but rather start from the same point.

Height:

3 - 12 feet high at maturity.

Leaves:

Long pale green tape-like lance shaped leaves which wrap around and tightly sheath the stalk toward its base, and often extend below the water surface.

Stem/Trunk:

Single erect terminating in a brown cigar shaped flower spike.

Root:

Spreading rhizome.

Flower:

Season:

Early summer

Appearance:

Distinctive cigar shaped flower spike that occurs at the top of a long stalk.

Seed/Fruit:

In autumn the flower spike ripens and bursts forth with a mass of fluffy cotton like seeds.

Miscellaneous characteristics:

Text

Habitat:

Shallow waters of marshes and streams. Margins of ponds and lakes. Some species in brackish water.

Parts Used:

Stems - trail nibble, salad, cooked vegetable. The young shoots and stems taste like cucumber.

Flower spikes -  Cooked Vegetable. Gather when green. Boil for a few minutes. They taste reminiscent of corn on the cob

Pollen - Flour. For a short time in late spring or early summer, before the flower spikes turn brown, the green pollen can be gathered by carefully bending the flower head into a bag, and shaking it gently. the flour will fall into the bottom of the bag. be careful not to let the wind get to it, as this is so light, a small wind will blow it away. I have never been able to collect enough to make it a viable food source, but it is still fun to try.

Rhizome - Flour

Corm - Flour, potato substitute

Tubers - Potato substitute

Leaves - Thatching, weaving mats.

Dried flower head - Tinder

Uses:

Wild Food Uses:

From early spring through early summer the flower stalks have an excellent, refreshing, cucumber like flavor. They are very good in soups, salads, and just peeled and eaten raw. Select a plant, and start by peeling the first few layers of leaves away to below the water level. Now grasp the entire stem just above the water level, and pull gently upward. The stem will release from the rhizome. Peel away the remaining fibrous leaves until you end up with the tender inner stem. Rinse in clean water to remove the slightly slimy coating. I have heard this goop can also be saved to thicken soups, but it never seemed worth the trouble to me, so I just rinse it off. Eat the stem bite by bite from the white end. As you begin to reach the upper fibrous parts, just peel away more leaves, and continue to enjoy.

You can also gather the rhizome, corms, and tubers. All are starchy, and excellent sources of carbohydrates. The rhizomes are quite fibrous, but they can be pounded, and the fibers strained out, and the mixture placed in a bucket of water. After the starch settles to the bottom, pour the water off the top, and let the remaining water evaporate for a couple of days. You will be left with highly nutritious flour. As the summer and autumn progress, enlarged tubers begin to develop along the fibrous roots. These starchy bulbs will send up next years plant. They can be gathered by raking around in the muck with a rake, your hands, or your bare feet. They are small 1" - 2" in diameter, but are quite good. I enjoy them in stews and soups.

As you see, Cattails are an extremely useful plant to know. Their abundance makes them a viable food source for anyone looking to supplement their diet with a tasty, highly nutritious carbohydrate. Cattails are a good source of beta carotene, niacin, phosphorus, potassium, riboflavin, thiamin, and vitamin C. Enjoy some today.

The following text is meant for informational purposes only. It is not meant to diagnose or treat any illness or injury. Always consult with a physician or other qualified medical care provider concerning the diagnosis and treatment of any illness or injury.

Medicinal Uses:

None Known

Additional Uses:

The leaves can be used to weave baskets or mats, or to make thatching to keep a shelter water proof. If you find yourself in direct sunlight without a hat, a wonderful sunhat can be woven from the leaves of this amazing plant. The dried pollen fluff is a passable tinder for starting fires. It can also be used as a punk to store embers for a future fire. 

This is the flower head in bloom. Each cattail flower contains both male and female reproductive parts. The top male section fertilizes the bottom female section via gravity. Once mating has taken place, the male section withers and dies. As the flower head ripens it takes on the familiar brown cigar shape we associate with cattails. (See photo below)

 

In the above picture I have crushed the male section of the flowering cattail.

Notice the golden powder in the creases between my fingers and palm. This pollen makes a wonderful addition to regular AP flour, or rhizome flour. It adds an interesting and very good flavor to any baked goods. This flour can be harvested without damaging the plant. Simply bend the stem to allow the flower head to be shaken into an awaiting bag. It takes quite a bit of time to gather enough pollen to use, but your efforts will be rewarded. Make sure to harvest on a day with scant wind. I cannot tell you how frustrating it is to gather a bag of pollen only to have a gust of wind come along and scatter it from your bag. More than once I have gone home upset, and covered in golden pollen. Honest honey, it may look like stripper dist, but it is cattail pollen.

When you pull the stem from the ground in late summer through winter, you will find horn shaped corms are the terminus. These are quite tasty, and high in carbohydrates.

This is the corm which grows on the rhizome at the base of the stem.

Once peeled the stem of the Cattail is quite tasty, and highly nutritious.

It is one of the only wild food plants that provide high  amounts of carbohydrates.

Food on the plate from top to bottom;

Bullhead fillets, cattail shoots, water snake, crawfish tails.

 

Poisonous Look Alikes

While they will probably not kill you, they may make you wish you were dead.

Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea are indications you chose poorly.

Mature Blue Flag at 2ft tall, is much shorter than mature cattail. The chance of mistaking this for cattail occurs in early spring when both first emerge. The easiest way to identify cattail, is that the leaves sheath the stalk, while those of blue flag do not, but rather are separate.

Some photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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Revised: 01/20/17 Living Afield