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Cattails are an often overlooked survival food. These nutrient-rich wild edibles grow throughout the United States and are generally easy to find. Cattails boast a high percentage of vitamins A, B, and C, phosphorous, manganese, and potassium.
Not only can you eat cattails, you can also harvest the pollen from the foraged plant and use it as a shelf-stable substitute for flour. They have a slightly starchy yet mild flavor.
To harvest the pollen from a cattail plant, just shake the stalk into a paper sack to release it. Always store the pollen in an airtight container as any air or moisture will decrease its shelf life.
Because a single acre of cattails can potentially offer a yield of nearly 6,500 pounds of flour, cultivating this wild edible to supplement the diets of soldiers during World War II was common.
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Types Of Cattails
In North America, two species of cattails commonly exist. These nearly look-a-like classes of cattails both grow in marshy areas. These are probably the easiest of all foraging items to identify. However, you must learn to tell them apart to determine when to harvest them and how to prepare them to avoid becoming severely ill.
There are two distinct species of cattails, and both grow in marshy areas: Typha angustifolia (narrowleaf cattail) and Typha latifolia (broadleaf cattail).
The first part of the species name, Typha, is a Greek root word and translates to “marsh.” The horrific and deadly disease of typhoid stems from the same Greek root word. In fact, the phrase “Typhoid Mary” stems from the scientific name for these two species of cattails.
The second part of the species name refers to the width of the plant. Typha angustifolia has narrow leaves and grows in deeper water along ponds, creeks, and rivers. Typha latifolia has wider leaves and thrives in more shallow water areas. Both varieties of cattails have been known to crossbreed.
Here’s a picture of Typha angustifolia (narrowleaf cattail):
And here’s a picture of Typha latifolia (broadleaf cattail):
- Cattails usually grow to about 9 feet in height.
- The leaves on the wild edibles have a leather strap-style appearance and are spongy on the inside but stiff on the outside.
- Cattail leaves are brown cigar-shaped or rounded on the back and form together at the base – appearing as if to flatten on the bottom – without truly losing their oval design.
- In the spring, cattails grow both flowers and spikes while filling up with pollen.
- When a cattail plant is blossoming, it is densely filled with tiny flowers. The flowers are green spies initially but then turn a bright shade of yellow as the pollen content on the plant builds.
- The roots on cattails form in a horizontal pattern. This portion of the plant is best eaten during the spring or fall seasons.
- Leaves on cattails are very erect and flat and boast a “D” shaped cross-section. About 15 leaves grow from each shoot on the plant. The thick and ribbon style leaves are a green to pale gray in color.
- Cattail flowers have two parts, a male and a female portion. The top of the cigar-shaped area of the plant is the male yellow spike male that is surrounded by the small female pistillate flowers.
- Both types of flowers become visible from May through July. In the early fall, the brown cigar-shaped flower heads open up to expose the puffy seeds inside.
- You can tell the difference between male and female plants easily by the “T” split between the “gender” specific portions of the plant – unless it is a typha latifolia species.
- The leaves of edible cattail plants will be stiff yet have a spongy texture on both the inside and the outside.
- Cattails should have no distinctive odor at all – with the exception of the mud smell that accompanies them immediately after they are pulled from murky ground.
What Part Of Cattails Are Edible?
When eaten raw, the white lower part of the stem tends to taste like cucumbers. If you cook the lower cattail stem, the flavor resembles corn on the cob. This portion of the plant is best harvested during the summer months.
- The bottom white stalks.
- Rootlets (young roots) – these look a lot like spaghetti noodles and can be used as a pasta substitute in recipes.
- Young tips
- Main Root Spurs
Also during the hot weeks of late summer, you can eat the green flower heads from the cattail plant and once again enjoy the taste of corn on the cob. The roots of cattail plants should be harvested in the fall.
Cattail leaves can be eaten raw to make a wild salad. The stems of young plants are especially tasty when boiled, but can be eaten raw. Young shoots must be cooked thoroughly before becoming tender and taste a lot like asparagus.
Roasting the flowers on cattail plants, as noted, above, taste delicious and like corn on the cob. I often add a pinch or two of cattail pollen to pancakes when camping to infuse more nutrients into the morning meal.
How To Harvest Cattail Starch
There are two ways to harvest starch from a cattail – the peeling method and the water method.
Starch Peeling Method
- Harvest and then rinse the stalk of the cattail in cold water.
- Peel the “flesh” from the exterior of the cattail while it is still wet.
- Chop or chunk the cattail root into small pieces and place them in a bowl.
- Use a mortar and pestle or a mallet to pound the roots into tiny bits or a powder.
- Simply scoop the starch out of a bowl and prepare in a cattail recipe as desired or store in an airtight container.
Starch Water Method
- Harvest and then rinse the cattail roots in cold water.
- Crush the roots with a mallet.
- Soak the crushed cattail roots in cold water for about five minutes. During this time, the starch will release and then settle in the base of the bowl.
- Slowly pour the water out of the bowl, careful not to dislodge the released starch from its bottom. Do not pitch the roots, you are not done with them yet.
- Scoop out the starch with a butter knife or spoon.
- Repeat steps three and four at least twice to ensure all of the cattail starch has been released and gathered before pitching the roots.
Cattail Root Preparation Tips
Although cattail roots are typically considered a safe wild edible in their raw state, doing so often gives folks a pretty uncomfortable stomach ache due to the high level of starch they contain.
The roots of cattail plants can be harvested, washed, and then roasted over a campfire. When prepared in this manner, the roots will have a rather spongy consistency and blacken.
Toss the cattail roots onto a BBQ grill or into a smoker to prepare them for eating. The grilled or smoked roots can be eaten alone or used in a recipe after being heated.
You can also boil the roots just as you would if making potatoes.
- 1 cup of scalded milk
- 2 cups of cattail tops – chopped
- ½ cup of butter – melted
- 2 eggs – beaten
- ½ teaspoon of black pepper
- ½ teaspoon of sugar
- ½ teaspoon of nutmeg
- Combine the black pepper, sugar, nutmeg and melted butter in a bowl.
- Stir the ingredients thoroughly to combine.
- Add in the eggs and stir thoroughly again.
- Pour in the chopped cattail tops and once again stir completely to combine.
- Next, pour in the scalded milk and stir once more.
- Pour the scalloped cattails into a 9 X 13 baking dish.
- Bake at 275 degrees for half an hour or until golden brown on top.
- 1 and ½ cups of cattail roots
- 1 whole onion – diced
- ½ of a cup of milk
- 1 cup of shredded cheese
- 1 cup of breadcrumbs
- 1 egg, beaten
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
- Mix the cattail roots, breadcrumbs, and milk together thoroughly.
- Add in the onion and egg and stir completely.
- Toss in the salt, pepper, and shredded cheese – stirring thoroughly to combine.
- Bake in a 9 X 13 dish for 25 to 30 minutes.
- ¼ of a cup of cattail pollen
- 1 teaspoon of salt
- 3 cups of baking powder
- ¾ of a cup of milk
- 4 tablespoons of lard or shortening
- Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
- Combine all of the ingredients together in a large bowl and stir thoroughly to combine.
- Knead the mixture into a dough.
- Roll out the dough and cut into traditional biscuit shapes using the mouth of a glass or cookie cutters.
- Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet for 20 minutes.
Other Uses for Cattails
- The dried leaves can be used as tinder to start a campfire.
- The dried stalks can be used as arrow shafts or in hand drills.
- Dried tops can be light and carried by the sturdy stems and use as a torch.
- You can cut, dry, and then lightly soak the leaves to use for weaving baskets or mats.
- The puffy interior of a cattail top can be dried and used as stuffing in mattresses, pillows, blankets, and for homemade toys.
- Break open a cattail leaf, as you would the leaf of an aloe plant, and use the cool gel inside as a natural antiseptic cream.
- Use the leaves and gell to make a poultice and apply it to bruises, burns, stings, and other mild wounds.
- Take the dried leaves and braid at least three of them together to create cordage.
After reading this article, you’ll probably start noticing cattails all over the place. During the spring and fall, they are often very easy to find.
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