The versatile Cattail



Everyone has seen the big brown fruit spikes of the cattail. They grow in swamps, on lake shores, along stream banks and even in ditches beside roadways.

Cattails are a big plant – up to 9 feet tall. The young shoots are round in cross section and the leaves rap around a central core and flare away further up.

This round cross section is the main feature that sets the cattail apart from the Swamp Iris,

Swamp Irises

Swamp Irises

which is toxic and grows in the same environment.

The shoots of the Iris are flat and fan shaped.

Most often the old growth of the cattail makes it obvious what you are looking at.

Cattail old growth

Cattail old growth

Swamp Iris Shoots

Swamp Iris Shoots

Every part of the cattail is edible.

However, the plant will take up anything that occurs in the water it grows in. It is a good idea, only to collect them from clean water.

The cattail spreads by runners or rhizomes.

These extend horizontally under the mud and send up new shoots. They are quite fleshy and full of starch and fibers. The trick is to separate the starch from the fibers.

If you are lost in the woods and just trying to survive, you can peel the roots and chew the white inside, sucking out the starch. This actually works quite well.

Another method is to scrape the starch off the peeled roots with the back of a knife on a cutting board. Discard the fibers and dry the scrapings into a white starch powder which can be used like flower.

Traces of cattail starch have been found on grinding stones 30 000 years old. People have been eating this for a long time.

The young Shoots

In the spring you can grab the young shoots as far down the stem as possible and pull them straight out. Peel off the outer layer of leaves until you get to the white core. The bottom 5 to 6 inches are very nice, cut up and stir fried in butter or oil with a bit of salt and pepper.

The flower spikes

Later on in the summer, you can gather the green flower spikes by peeling off the sheath, they are rapped up in. Boil them till soft and eat them like corn on the cob, with a bit of butter and salt.

The pollen

The upper part of these spikes form the male potion of the flower. They come into bloom and produce a lot of pollen. You will have to watch this process closely, since the bloom  lasts only for 2 or 3 days.

The pollen can be gathered by bending the flower spike down, putting it into a plastic bag and shaking it vigorously. Sifter out the debris that collects with it and dry it thoroughly and it will keep for weeks in a container. Do not store it in plastic bags since it will collect moisture and might attract mold. The pollen can be mixed with regular flour and used in baking of bread, biscuits, cakes or pancakes. It enhances the appearance and the taste.

Other uses

Cattails haven't only been consumed as food. The cotton like wool of the ripe seeds has been used as insulation in clothing, as stuffing in flotation devices and beds and as diapers, and tinder for starting fires by some indigenous tribes of America.

The leaves were used to weave baskets and chair seats and even to build boat by people around Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia.

Every part of this plant played a role in the requirements of people, throughout history.

This is what makes it the very versatile Cattail.

Get field guides for this and other edible, wild plants, here.


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