Cattails have long been referred to as the “supermarket of the wilds.” An old Boy Scout motto says, “You name it and we’ll make it from cattails.” The young tips on the plant, as well as main root spurs, bottom white stalk, and spaghetti-looking “rootlets” protruding away from the main roots, are all edible. Cattails are also a good source of vitamins A, B, C phosphorous, and potassium. Pollen from cattails can be used in lieu of flour.
In North America two species of cattails are common – Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia. Typha, a Greek word, means “marsh.” The disease known as typhoid and the phrase Typhoid Mary both stem from the ancient word. Latifolia and angustifolia reference lead size, the former indicating wide and the latter referencing slimness. Typha latifolia prefers to grow in shallow water and angustifolia thrives in deeper water, but the two species are also found side-by-side and crossbreed on occasion.
Cattails grown in a multitude of places around the United States can be an excellent source of energy-bearing nutrients. Knowing what you can and can’t eat safely when in either a short or long-term survival situation may mean the difference between life and death.
One of the most important minerals contained in cattails is manganese. According to the Eat The Weeds website, the “weed” generates more edible starch per acre than potatoes, Cat o’ nine tails, rice, yams and taros. A single acre of cattails can produce approximately 6,474 pounds of flour during an average year. Cattails were reportedly set to be fed to World War II soldiers, but the fighting ended first.
Cattail roots can also be boiled in the same manner as potatoes. Additionally, the plant root can be roasted over an open flame until it is completely black and has a “spongy” consistency on the outside. When boiling or roasting cattail roots, make sure to spit out the fiber stands so you do not ingest too much at once and get a stomach ache. Roasting cattail roots on a standard BBQ grill is also an option, whether you are in a survival situation or just want to dine on a more natural entree.
The brown flower spikes can be dried in the sun and used as tinder or even a temporary torch. Native Americans once used cattails in mattresses and for other insulation and absorption needs. Due to cattails’ unique look, it is very difficult to misidentify mature plants, which could be very helpful when foraging for food.
The smaller and younger plants do have three toxic look-a-likes, so print a photo of both stages of the plant’s growth and have handy for quick reference. If the plant, whether young or old, plucked from the mud has either a strong flavor or aroma, you have likely chosen the wrong plant for dinner. Other than the smell of moist dirt or mud, cattails have virtually no odor.
To harvest starch from a cattail plant, clean the exterior roots and then mince or crush them, before putting them in clean water. After the small bits of root sit in the water for at least five minutes, the starch will settle to the bottom. Carefully and slowly pour off the water. This step may need repeated several times in a bowl of clean water each time in order to remove all of the extra fiber. Although it is not dangerous to eat a cattail stalk raw, many folks who have done so report getting a stomach ache due to the high levels of starch. Once the excess is removed, there is still plentiful root starch to garner nutrients from.
Peeling the roots may be a less labor intensive way to clean and remove excess starch from a cattail plant. Peeling while the stalk is wet is far easier than to do so when the plant has been allowed to dry thoroughly. Once peeled, chop the roots into smaller pieces, as you would do with carrots, and then pour, pound or place the roots in some water to cleanse. You can also remove the long fiber strings, pound them into a powder and use them like flour once they have been allowed to dry thoroughly.
Cattail plants typically grow around nine-feet-tall. The leaves of the wild plant are stiff and “strap-like” on the outside and spongy on the inside. The leaves are commonly rounded on the back and sheath together at the base of the plant, appearing to flatten near the bottom, but never truly lose their oval or cigar-like shape. The cattail blossom is packed densely with small flowers. The roots of the edible plant grow horizontally. There is also a “T” shaped gap between the female and the male parts of a cattail, unless the plant is of the latifolia variety, the most commonly found type of the species.
The cattail plant grows spikes, flowers, and pollen in the spring. During this time of the year the blooming green spikes begin to turn a bright yellow as this part of the plant is covered in pollen. The roots and the bottom portion of the stalks are considered to be prime eating during both the fall and spring. The plant thrives in rivers, lakes, ponds and ditches.
Cattail Casserole: Mix together one cup of bread crumbs, one beaten egg, a half cup of milk, shredded cheese, pepper, and salt, two cups of scraped cattail spikes, and a diced onion. Put in a casserole dish and bake for 25 minutes at 350 degrees.
Pollen Biscuits: Place a plastic bag over the end of the cattail plant and shake to capture the pollen. The fine particles resemble a “curry” colored talcum powder. You can use the pollen instead of flour, at the same measurements, for cookie, muffin and pancake recipes.
To make the biscuits, mix together three cups of baking powder, a one and three-quarters cup of flour, quarter cup of cattail pollen, one teaspoon of salt, three-quarters of a cup of milk, and four tablespoons of shortening. After kneading and cutting the dough into typical biscuit shapes, bake at 425 degrees for 20 minutes.
Scalloped Cattails: Combine a half cup of melted butter, a half teaspoon of black pepper, nutmeg, sugar, two beaten eggs, and two cps of cattail tops – chopped. Blend the ingredients together well and slowly pour in one cup of scalded milk. Pour the ingredients into a greased casserole dish and garnish with a little bit of shredded cheese and butter. Bake for 30 minutes at 275 degrees.