The common cattail (typha latifolia) is one of the first of the wild edible plants that all hikers should familiarize themselves with. It not only has several edible parts, but there is some part of the plant that can be harvested for food during any season. In addition, it has other uses as well.
In the spring you can find a cattail swamp and cut the fresh tips of the plants from the mud. Rinse them in some safe water and they are edible either raw or cooked. Once you know the plant, identifying the new shoots is no problem, The stalks and dried flower heads of the old plants are always around.
In the summer you can first harvest the tender stems. The lower several inches will be white and ready to eat. If you pull slowly, they will often come loose at the base. Raw, they taste something like cucumber. Cooked, the taste is more like corn. Later, the green flower heads can be cooked and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. By mid-summer the yellow pollen will be falling from the spike atop the flower heads, and can be shaken into a paper bag to use in thickening soups or even mixed with flour for making bread.
In the fall you can still locate the cattail by the old stalks and dig up the rope-like roots that criss-cross the swamps. Clean these, mash them in water and let the mix sit for a few hours. What you’ll get when you pour off the water is a gooey mass of starch at the bottom of the container. This can be used to make a bread of sorts, or just put into emergency soups.
In the winter you can get the roots, just as in the fall, provided the water or mud isn’t frozen. Sometimes you can dig into the muck and find fresh new tips of the plants to eat as well. This is especially true as you get closer to spring.New plant tips, tender parts of the stalks, flower heads, pollen, and roots – five edible parts, and at least one available in each season. But that’s not all. The “fluff” of the mature flower heads was once used to stuff life jackets, and is still perfect as an emergency insulation. If you are lost and without sufficient clothing, you can fill your jacket with it. Use it to make a warm mattress as well.
Cattail flower head fluff is also very flammable. Break open a mature flower head (available almost any time of the year) and make a pile of it. Then strike a match to it, or even a good spark, and it will burst into flame. The tight heads are often dry inside even after a heavy rain, making this a great survival tinder.
The leaves are long and flat, which makes them easy to weave into simple mats for sitting on. These mats can be used to serve food too, or as a barrier between you and the ground in an emergency shelter. For many centuries they were also woven into baskets and other containers. The stems were used for weaving and other purposes as well.
The common cattail is not only one of the best wild edible plants, but one of the best wilderness plants to know for many other purposes. How many other plant have five edible parts and several parts that are useful for a variety of survival needs? Best of all is the fact that they can be found in wet places across North America. Hikers, backpackers and others who spend time in the wilderness should get to know the cattail before all other plants.
The medicinal uses of cattails include poultices made from the split and bruised roots that can be applied to cuts, wounds, burns, stings, and bruises. The ash of the burned cattail leaves can be used as an antiseptic or styptic for wounds. A small drop of a honey-like excretion, often found near the base of the plant, can be used as an antiseptic for small wounds and toothaches.
The utility of this cattail is limited only by your imagination. The dried stalks can be used for hand drills and arrow shafts. The seed heads and dried leaves can be used as tinder. The seed head fluff can be used for pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing. The leaves can be used for construction of shelters or for woven seats and backs of chairs, which has been a traditional use for hundreds of years.
They can be woven into baskets, hats, mats, and beds. The dried seed heads attached to their stalks can be dipped into melted animal fat or oil and used as torches.
Where Does Cattail (Typha Latifolia) Grow?
Cattails are readily identified by the characteristic brown seed head. There are some poisonous look-alikes that may be mistaken for cattail, but none of these look-alikes possess the brown seed head.
Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Yellow Flag (Iris pseudoacorus) and other members of the iris family all possess the cattail-like leaves, but none possesses the brown seed head. All members of the Iris family are poisonous.
Another look-alike which is not poisonous, but whose leaves look more like cattail than iris is the Sweet Flag (Acorus calumus). Sweet Flag has a very pleasant spicy, sweet aroma when the leaves are bruised. It also does not posses the brown seed head. Neither the irises nor cattail has the sweet, spicy aroma. I have seen large stands of cattails and sweet flag growing side by side.
As with all wild edibles, positive identification is essential. If you are not sure, do not eat it.