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Cattails: Nature’s Food & Fiber Pantry | Garden Compass

Cattails produces more edible starch per acre. Plans were underway to feed American soldiers with that starch during WWII. One acre of cattails can produce 6,475 pounds of flour per year. Two species of cattails are common in North America today. Typha latifolia likes shallower water. Typha angustifolia likes deeper water, but it is not unusual to find them living side by side and also crossbreeding.

Cattails and their associated microorganisms improve water and soil quality. They render organic pollution harmless, and fix atmospheric nitrogen, bringing it back into the food chain. They’ve even been planted along the Nile river to reduce soil salinity.

Cattails get their name from their mature brown cylindrical flower spikes. When I was young we lived near cattails and they fascinated me. I would gather a bouquet of the brown heads to bring into the house. Alas, they soon became heads of fluff which floated to all corners. My mother banned them. Cattails are beautiful accents for autumn arrangements both indoors and out. To keep them from turning to “fluff” on a stick you can use a variety of techniques. The most successful way I have found is to use polyurethane to coat them. Some use hair spray. I wish I had known that long ago. Be sure to do it right after collection, however.

The plant dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. They are native to both North America and Europe. They are first mentioned in writing in the United States in the 1830s along the Atlantic seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico excluding Texas. The native cattail, Typha gracilis, seems to have all but disappeared, hybridizing with the European version to form the two species mentioned here.

A cattail stand is like a branching shrub lying on its side under the mud, with only the leaves and blossoms visible. Cattails grow to 9 feet; leaves are strap-like, stiff, spongy inside, rounded on back, sheathed together at the base to appear flattened, but oval; the sausage-looking blossom is very densely packed with tiny flowers, male flowers in the top cluster, female flowers in the bottom cluster. Roots grow horizontally. If there is a gap between the male and female parts of the plant it is T. angustifolia, or the narrow leaf cattail. If the male and female parts of the plant meet, it is T. latifolia, the common cattail. Spikes, pollen and flowers are available in the spring; bottoms of stalks and root are best in fall and spring.

Cattails have a surprising function and history. The spread of cattails in a body of water is an important part of the process of open water being converted to marsh then dry land. Cattail grows where it is wet: rivers, ponds, ditches, lakes, close to shore or farther out. Cattails have a surprising function and history. They can clean wastewater at sewage treatment plants and detoxify soils,


Cattail Life Stages

It is said that if a lost person has found cattails, they have four of the five things they need to survive: Water, food, shelter and a source of fuel for heat in the dry old stalks. The young cob-like flower spikes are edible as is the white bottom of the stalk, spurs off the main roots and spaghetti like rootlets off the main roots. The pollen can be used like flour. The end of season fluffy heads make excellent tinder and the Native Americans used the fluff for insulation, mattresses and absorption. In fact, their word for cattail in some areas meant “for papoose bedding.” Cattails can pick up pollutants so it is best to harvest them from wholesome water. Ditches along a well-traveled road or from a sprayed area are not to be gathered for food. The leaves can still be used to weave into mats and the small mats can be sewn together for large enough mats for carpeting, shelter and even clothes, though they are a bit stiff at first. For weaving use only the leaves not surrounding the cattail stem. Archeologists have excavated cattail mats over 10,000 years old from Nevada cave.The dried leaves were also twisted into dolls and toy animals for children, much like corn-husk dolls found today.

Every part of the cattail plant is either edible or useful in some way. As a food it offers boiled immature and mature flowers, pollen in bread, stalks as a trail nibble, root starch for sustenance, root stems and shoots as vegetables. The roots can be boiled and the starch stripped or sucked off the fibers. They can be dried, the starch grated off the fibers and the starch used as flour. You can crush the roots in water, let the starch settle, pour off the water, then use the starch. Here are three other ways to get to the root starch: Clean and peel the cattail roots Dry the peeled roots. Chop them into small pieces, and then pound them with a little water. When the long fibers are removed, the result can be dried and used as flour. Do not eat the fiber! Of course, there is always the modern technology. Run the peeled roots through a grinder and then separate out the fiber bits. This may take a little while. Most blenders cannot handle this job. Cattail flour has gluten, phosphorous, potassium and iron, along with high levels of protein. Dried it contains about 57% carbohydrates. Also the core of the roots can be roasted until dry and used as a coffee substitute. The green bloom spikes turn a bright yellow as they become covered with pollen. Put a large plastic bag over the head and shake. The pollen is very fine, resembling a curry-colored talcum powder. It is rich in protein. Pancakes, muffins and cookies are excellent by substituting pollen for ½ the wheat flour in any recipe. We have especially enjoyed the young white shoots, after removing the outer covering, marinated and used as is or in a salad. You’ll get the best yield just before the flowers begin to develop. A few huge, late-spring stalks provide enough delicious food for a meal. You can clip off and eat the male portions of the immature, green, flower head. Steam or simmer it for ten minutes. It tastes vaguely like its distant relative, corn, and there is even a central cob-like core. Because it’s dry, serve it with a topping of sauce, seasoned oil, or butter. It’s one of the best wild vegetarian sources of protein, unsaturated fat, and calories. It also provides beta-carotene and minerals.

Cattail heads are soaked in fat as a torch and smudge. Cattail down is great insulation. Two blankets sewn together and filled with the down makes a great sleeping bag. One warning, the fluff can cause a rash if it leaks through the covering, so use material dense enough. Cattail also has medicinal uses. The flower heads have been used to stop diarrhea.

I can think of no other North American plant that is more useful than the cattail. This wonderful plant is a virtual gold mine of survival utility. It is a four-season food, medicinal, and utility plant. What other plant can boast eight food products, three medicines, and at least 12 other functional uses?

About the author

Pat Patterson

Raised as a gardener in California and Washington, Pat grew things in order to eat. In 1976, she participated in the first Oregon State University Master Gardener volunteer training.