Have you seen those memes with the cattail flowers depicted as hotdogs and wondered, are cattails edible? If you have, you may be surprised to know that you cattails are, in fact edible. In fact, they may be the ultimate survival plant. Who knew?
When I was doing my research for edible weeds I came across cattails as a possibility. I was going to include them in the list, but they’re not really a garden weed and the information I found on them was vast and interesting. So, cattails get their own, private post.
These widely available plants are pretty amazing. Not only are they edible, they have a variety of other survival uses. They can provide you with food, shelter, and warmth and grow near water, so you’ve got most necessities covered (you can talk to them, but I don’t think they’ll provide much in conversation). Maybe I live in the dark, but I had no idea how useful they are!
Cattails are, surprisingly, native to North America. I find this surprising since so many plants, particularly plants deemed as weeds, are not native here. However, native plants (Typha gracilis) have seemingly disappeared and been replaced by their hybridized cousins (Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia).
They have an incredible history here and have been used for centuries. In fact, there is so much information about cattails and their uses that I could probably write an entire book on the subject, but… I won’t.
Most of us have seen cattails on our travels, they’re pretty difficult to miss. The mature plant can reach heights of 9 feet and consists of a tall stalk with a brown, flower head that resembles a cat’s tail. No mature plant resembles a mature cattail.
That being said there are a few plants that resemble younger cattails and a three of them are toxic. One way to avoid this is to look for last year’s growth to make sure you’re actually looking at cattails.
Another is to bring along a field guide of what a cattails looks like during different stages of growth and how to differentiate it from its toxic look a likes. A true cattail is oval shaped at the base, not completely flat.
And third, and probably the easiest way is smell the plant. Cattails have a very mild scent and flavor. If you smell much more than mud, you don’t have a cattail.
These plants grow readily along marshy areas near lakes, rivers, ditches and streams. Common cattails (Typha latifolia) prefer to grow along shallow parts of the water whereas Typha angustifolia prefer deeper sections, but you’ll often find them growing together and they’re both equally edible.
Edible Parts of Cattails
These plants have several edible parts. Cattails actually produce more starch per acre than potatoes and were almost helped the US win WWII, but it ended before we could feed the troops.
Eating Cattail Pollen
If you’re someone with allergies like me, you might cringe at the word pollen like I did. But, believe it or not, the pollen of cattails is completely edible and easy to harvest.
However, the season to harvest this beautiful golden pollen is very short. The male flower (each plant has both a male and female) generates copious amounts of pollen in the early spring, but it’s often blown away by the wind as quickly as it forms and the season is often only a week long.
To gather it you will simply grab a pollen coated flower and bend it into a container and shake it to get the pollen off. It will keep for quite some time, but it tastes pretty good so you probably won’t have it around for long. You can gather copious amounts of pollen pretty quickly.
You can use the pollen to replace about half of the flour in any baked good recipe. We prefer to make biscuits or pancakes. But any baking recipe will work, you’ll keep the instructions and ingredients the same and just switch out half of the flour for the pollen.
The green female flowers can also be harvested in the spring while they are still green. Just pick them from where they’re hidden within the leaves.
You can eat them like you would corn on the cob. Simply boil the flowers until they are nice and hot then, serve them with butter and a bit of salt and pepper. Like wild corn on the cob.
Eating the Shoots & Stalks
In the spring you can eat the shoots as well as the white part of the stalks down by the root.
These cook up like asparagus and have a similar flavor. You simply roast them in a heated oven with a bit of oil, salt and pepper until they’re tender.
Alternatively, you can eat them fresh, put some yummy dip on them. They taste similar to cucumbers when eaten raw.
The roots can be harvested year-round, but are best in the fall and winter. Flour has been made from cattail roots for centuries and has even been found on Paleolithic grinding stones.
The roots have a fibrous section surrounding them that needs removed and while you can eat the roots raw, most people say it gives them a stomach ache.
You can peel the roots to remove the excess fiber from the plant. You’ll want to do this while they are wet. Once they are dry, it becomes rather difficult.
Peel them, soak them in some water for about 5 minutes and then chop them into pieces. Then, clean them with some water and pound them to remove the fibrous sections. Allow the resulting powder to dry and it can be used just like wheat flour or used to thicken soups.
The roots can be made into flour and they can also be eaten. You will want to peel and clean them. Then you can boil them like potatoes, fry them in a pan with some butter, or even put them in the fire until they are black and spongy.
When eating the roots, you’ll eat them similar to artichokes, removing the fibrous parts and eating the starchy center that remains.
Cattails can be simply prepared, which makes them a great survival food. But, if you’re looking for something a little more adventurous that you can prepare in your kitchen right now, check these recipes out.
Other Uses for Cattails
These plants have uses far beyond just being edible. Native American’s harvested cattails regularly and utilized them for various things. These amazing plants can provide you with shelter, fire, food, and water (since they grow near water sources). Pretty awesome.
Insulation & Absorption
The cotton-like material found in the found inside the flower is incredibly absorbent and was used by Native American’s to make everything from mattresses and pillows to making diapers.
The material is very absorbent and also makes a great insulator.
Dip the brown cat’s tail into some oil and light it on fire. It will burn for several hours. Also, the inside cotton-like material makes an excellent fire starter. Simply open it up if it hasn’t started to blow the cotton seeds all over the place and it’s very flammable and stays dry even in wet weather.
You can utilize the leaves of the plant to weave into baskets. Other leaves, like yucca, will result in sturdier baskets, but if this is what you have, then why not use it?
You will want to cut, dry, and resoak the leaves in order to make them into baskets. You could also use them to make ponchos or hats.
The leaves can also be turned into survival rope. Not too bad for a plant that many thought just looked like cat’s tails in the wind.
There is a gel within the lower part of the stems can be utilized as a topical anesthetic. The core of the root can be mashed into a poultice to treat insect bites. And they can also be burned and the ashes can be used to treat wounds.
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