The common cattail is one of the most useful survival plants Mother Nature has to offer. Every part of this plant can be used at one time or another throughout the year. Its' habitat is in year round standing water or wet soil (mud). Large stands are produced by the rapid spread of the roots (rhizomes) and the seeds being scattered by the wind.
These plants are easily identified by the brown seed head as shown in the photo below.
Parts of the plant:
Corms: Corms are the small pointed shoots growing from the roots in early spring. Remove the corms, peel them and add to soups and stews or eat them raw in a salad.
Shoots: When the plants shoots reach 2-3 feet above their growing medium, cut them off above the water, peel them and eat them raw or sauteed. Because of the Russians fondness for this, it is sometimes referred to as Cossack Asparagus.
Spikes: Soon after the shoots become available, the green female bloom spikes and the male pollen spikes begin to emerge. The spikes are in the center of the plant and form a cylindrical projection that can only be seen when you are close to the plant. If you peel back the leaves you can see the male portion above and the female below. Both male and female spikes can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob.
The female spike is what developes into the brown seed head that most people recognize.
Collecting Cattail Flour
The male head developes a yellow pollen, like talcum powder, which can be shaken off and collected. This can be used as a substitute for some of the flour in pancakes and cornbread as well as thickeners or flour extenders for breads, cakes, etc.
During late summer to early fall, the tender inner portions of the leaf stalk can be collected but the plant toughens with age and remains this way until spring. However, during this time you can collect rhizomes (roots) for the root starch to be used as a flour substitute.
Processing cattail flour:
Collect the roots then wash and peel them.
Break up the roots under water, flour will begin to separate from the fibers.
Continue until the fibers are all separated and the flour is removed.
Remove the fiber and pour off the excess water.
Dry the remaining flour slurry near a fire or in the sun.
The root flour contains gluten which is the constituent in wheat flour that allows it to rise in yeast breads.
Poultices made from the split and bruised roots may be applied to cuts, wounds, burns stings and bruises.
Use the fresh, pounded root directly as a poultice on infections, blisters and stings. Tie the poultice in place overnight and replace the next day.
Ash of the burned leaves can be used as an antiseptic or styptic for wounds
A small drop of a honey-like excretion, found near the base of the plant, can be used as an antiseptic for small wounds and toothaches.
As stated earlier, all parts of this plant are usable at one time or another throughout the year. Other uses include:
Arrow shafts and hand drills can be made from the dried stalks.
Seed head fluff (pictured at right) can be used as fire tinder, pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing.
Leaves can be used in the construction of shelters, for woven seats and backs of chairs as well as woven into baskets.
Torches can be made by dipping the dried brown seed heads, attached to their stalks, into melted animal fat or oil. The torch can also be lit without the use of wax or fat and it will smolder slowly.
Cattail stands are hard to control and considered a nuisance by many. However, if more people utilized this wonderful plant, control would not be an issue.
We at wildernessfolk.com do not make any warranties as to the safety of consuming any wild foods and accept no liability or responsibility for any consequences resulting from the use of any wild plants. If you have any doubts whatsoever about the identification of any wild plant or mushroom, don't eat it!