Few people realize what a great source of food cattails are. Cities all over the world have cattails growing in them. They can be found anywhere from Alaska to Zimbabwe. Cattails are healthy and nutritious, even if the area is polluted, and they can be found almost anywhere there is year-round standing water. They’re also fairly easy to identify—they have brown, weiner-like seed heads at the end of a long stem. However, like with any plant, if you’re not certain you’ve correctly identified it, don’t eat it.
At the beginning of spring, shoots grow up from the main roots. These are called corms, and they’re good for eating. Cut them up when they are 5 to 10 inches long. Any longer and they’ll be tough and bitter. You can eat them fresh with a salad or add them to a stew. Better yet, cut them into tiny pieces and stir fry them with butter and your favorite seasoning.
Later in the year the brown, weiner-shaped tops will finish forming, but you don’t want to wait that long. Instead, pick them early when they are green and tender. Peel off the leaves—like you would when shucking corn—boil them for about 10 minutes, and eat. They taste a lot like corn.
After the flowers mature, they will begin to pollinate. Vigorously shake the pollen off the flower into any container. You should be able to gather several cups of this stuff in just a few minutes. The pollen can be used in place of flour when making pancakes, bread, or even cake. The result will be heavy and filling.
In the fall and early winter, the roots will fatten up in anticipation of the cold weather. Dig them up, clean them, and boil them. The alternative is to peel them and break them up under water until the flour separates from the fibers. After that just pour away the excess fiber and allow the slush to dry in the sun until you’re left with something like mashed-potato mix (it will be very bland). You can also boil the roots until it becomes a syrup that is good for sweetening other foods.
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