Scientific name: There are two common species Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia
Other common names: Bulrush, Reedmace
The Cattail is found throughout North America in wetland areas, and moist ditches. T. Latifolia grows in shallow water and T. Angustifolia grows in deeper water, however it is not unusual to find them growing together, and having crossbred with each other.
Caution! They are generally hard to misidentify, however when young they can be mixed up with several toxic species such as Blue, Yellow or Sweet Flag. The flags often grow alongside Cattails so if you are harvesting before the spikes have formed, make sure you have identified the plant correctly. The Irises have flat leaves and have a sweet and spicy smell when bruised. Edible cattails are always oval at the base, they are also mild tasting and don’t have much of a smell. If you find something similar that is flat and/or has a strong smell and taste, it is not Cattail. No other look-alike has a brown seed head so look for last years seed heads next to what you’ve found to make sure what you’ve got are indeed cattails.
One more note of caution. Although some parts of the cattail can be eaten raw, they are a water born plant so I like to cook them to protect from giardia and other water born parasites. Soaking them in raw Apple Cider Vinegar for 20 min. is supposed to reduce this risk, however I tend to cook them unless in a survival situation.
And one more note of caution. Water plants can accumulate heavy metals, and Cattails are especially absorbent. Only harvest Cattails from clean water sources. If the water looks funky or you think it could be at risk (for example along a roadside) then don’t harvest there.
All that aside, when harvested correctly from clean water sources the Cattail is one of the best food sources around. And, as a bonus it has a bunch of other uses as well.
The fluff from the spikes can be used as tinder to start fires and the whole spike, dipped in animal fat, can be used as a torch for light.
The fluff can also be used for insulation from the cold, under bedding and stuffed into clothing. It’s very absorbent and good for soaking up wet things.
The leaves can be used for construction of shelters or woven into baskets, matts, bedding, and many other things.
The whole plant if full of vitamins A, B, and C, potassium and phosphorus. Cattails provide nutritious food high in calories that you can harvest year long, although in winter prepare for the cold as harvesting this plant you will get wet even when wearing appropriate gear. Wetsuits would be a good item to have on hand when harvesting Cattail in winter.
Harvesting the Rhizomes takes a bit of work. They don’t come up easy, you’ll need a tool like a long stick with a sharpened end to loosen the soil around it as you work. Even then you probably won’t get a whole rhizome. Follow the stalk with your hand down to the base, then into the mud until you can feel one of the rhizome branches. Then start to wiggle the stalk back and forth, use the stick to loosen mud around it (watch that you don’t poke your hand – ouch!), the do a bit of pushing and pulling and wiggle some more. Keep it up until the rhizome breaks loose. Once you’ve got the rhizome, you’ll also have the rest of the plant which you can also use.
You can use the rhizomes in a variety of ways.
- You can place them onto the coals of a fire and let them roast until black, then peel off the black part and chew and/or suck the starch out of them.
- The core of the rhizomes can be roasted in the same manner, until dry, then ground and used as a coffee substitute.
- The rhizomes can also be boiled to produce a fine syrup, which can be used to sweeten other dishes.
- The corms (the little sprouts/shoots coming out of the rhizome at the base) are tasty little morsels! You’ll want to be sure to preserve these when harvesting and cleaning the rhizomes. You can peel them while they are wet to get to the tender centers, which can be eaten raw (with caution), or cooked in olive oil, garlic and spices – yum!
- You can extract the starch from the rhizomes and make flour.
Steps to extracting the starch from Rhizomes (to make flour)
- Clean all the mud off the Rhizomes and Corms.
- Separate and peel the corms (most likely you will want to eat these separately).
- Peel the Rhizomes while it is still wet with a potato peeler or knife.
- Extract the starch from the peeled Rhizomes, there are a couple ways to do this:
- Pound them and then put them in a bucket of water, break them apart while submerged in the water, working them between your hands until they are all broken up and the water turns milky. Leave them to sit for a number of hours. You will see the thick starchy goo (paste like) at the bottom on the bucket and bits of plant matter floating at the top. Gently pour off the water and floating plant matter until all you have left is the starchy goo at the bottom. Then take the starchy paste and lay it out in the sun, or put it in the over on low temp, or in a dehydrator to dry it out.
- Push a sharp stone or knife along the rhizome from the bottom up (sort of like scraping the last bit of lotion out of a tube), this will cause the starch to come out on the rock or knife. Then scrape that into a bucket of water and let any fibers left float to the top while the starch sinks as in the first way. Pour off the water and plant matter and continue as directed previously.
- Dry the starch. You’ll want it really, really dry so it can go through a grinder or food processor. Sift the flour as you go and regrind anything left in the sifter, repeat until all you have is a fine flour.
- Make bread! You can mix your cattail flour with Acorn flour for a yummy earth filled bread, a nice recipe follows.
- 1 cup milk
- 2T butter
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 ½ cups Acorn Flour
- 1 ½ cups Cattail Four
- 1 cup Wheat (or gluten free) Flour
- 2 T Dry Yeast
Mix, Kneed and let sit until it rises. Punch it down and let it rise again. Wrap it in Soaproot leaves if you have them, or alternately place in a dutch oven, and set on the coals for about an hour, hour and a half. Pull it out of the coals and test if it’s done by giving it a bit of a squeeze, it will ‘bounce back’ when it’s done (you will need a hot mitt for that step!).
The Stalk, Spikes & Pollen
When the male spikes turn yellow with pollen, cut them and put them in a large plastic and shake them until the pollen, which is very fine, comes out. It will look like a yellow baby powder. You can add the pollen to the flour for cakes, pancakes, or any recipe. Pollen can be mixed in with seeds and nuts as part of trail mix. This is a highly nutritional food source and a good energy boost. The pollen can also be used as a thickener for other dishes.
The young spikes of the plant are edible. When the spikes first start to emerge, before they turn brown, both the female bloom spike and the male pollen spike can be eaten raw, or can boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Very tasty!
The white bottoms of the stalk can be peeled and roasted for a yummy treat.
When the spikes are mature you can burn them to extract the small seeds from the fluff, then the seeds can be used to make gruel, added to soups, or used in Pinole.
In late spring when the leaves are young and tender, the base of the leaves can be eaten raw (with caution) or cooked.
The inner leaf cores can be pulled from the outer leaves with a gentle tug, you can cut the longer part of the leaf off to make it easier. Then roast the cores over a fire.
You can burn the leaves and use the ash as an antiseptic for wounds and cuts.
The bruised rhizomes can be used as a poultice for wounds and cuts, burns and stings.
Often at the base of the plant there will be a drop or two of sap like substance, this can be used as an antiseptic for small wounds and toothaches.