Cattails – A Wild Plant of Many Uses

Posted by – March 1, 2011


When I was about twelve years old I read a book called My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George. The book was about a boy who runs away from home and goes to live in the forest. After reading My Side of the Mountain I really wanted to go and live in a forest. What makes the book particularly interesting is George’s descriptions of the various wild foods the boy eats to survive. The book makes it sounds as though an absolute feast is to be had in a good forest.

There followed for me many years of disillusionment, during which I discovered that my home country, the United Kingdom, really has no forests comparable to New York’s Catskills as described in George’s book. But along the way I did acquire a fascination with wild plants that has stayed with me to this day.

George’s character Sam appears to rely a lot on two staple plant foods. In winter he eats acorn pancakes (made from acorns that have been soaked in water to remove the tannin) and in summer he eats cattail (or “reedmace”) roots. The roots are apparently stringy and require a lot of boiling, but tasty and not unlike potatoes, only “stronger”.

Naturally I was excited to find that these plants grew near my home. I set out one day wearing rubber boots (cattails typically grow in shallow water) and pulled a few up. I can confirm that they do in fact have substantial starchy-looking roots, but the ones I found seemed to be afflicted with some kind of pollution or disease that caused them to be covered in black scales. I don’t know whether cattails look like this normally (I suspect not!) but I decided not to eat them, taking into account the location of the swamp where I found them — next to an opencast coal-mine. It seemed quite possible that someone had dumped a load of chemicals into that swamp, and cattail is apparently sometimes planted specifically to absorb pollutants.

So quarter of a century futher on, I’m still wondering what catttails taste like. Maybe I’ll try to research the matter further for this blog.

A Good Plant To Know If You’re Ever Lost in the Wilderness

Typha latifolia

The large starchy edible roots of the cattail make it a good plant to know if you’re ever lost in the wilderness or, say, there’s no food in the shops due to a recent nuclear holocaust. Boil them for a long time — maybe 45 minutes will do — and mash them.

But there’s more to this interesting plant than just its roots. For a start, the whole plant is in fact edible and was apparently widely consumed by our distant ancestors. The greenish flower heads (the brown things on top) can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob if you catch them before they turn to seed (rather you than me though — I must admit they don’t look appetising and there are much better wild foods to be had). The pollen from the male plants can be added to flour; the young shoots can be cooked and eaten and so can the base of the stems.

But aside from the roots, it’s the seeds of this plant that I find particularly intriguing. When mature, the brown sausage-shaped seed head transforms into a bunch of tightly-packed dandelion-esque seeds. Each little seed is attached to a parachute of white fluff to carry it away in the wind.

If you take a handful of this fluff and strike a spark into it (as many, many of our ancestors must surely have done in order to get a fire going, perhaps by striking pieces of fool’s gold together to make the spark), the whole thing ignites and turns briefly into a ball of flames.

When the flames are gone you’re left with a bunch of small seeds which can be ground to make an excellent nutty flour (so I’m told, and I’m really hoping to have the time to try making this flour myself soon!).

Build Your Own Cattail Cabin

If you really were lost in in the wilderness, you might also want to consider using the stems to build a shelter. The tall stems of the cattail start out green but eventually become dry and sandy-coloured, like stems of wheat but on a far larger scale. You could, if you were determined, build an entire cabin out of cattail stems. But I’ll leave that one to you.

Needless to say, please don’t eat any wild plant unless you’re certain you’ve identified it correctly. Otherwise you’ll be in for a trip to A&E — if you’re lucky …

Selected References:

Typha [Wikipedia article]

My Side of the Mountain, by Jean Craighead George

“Plants for a Future” plant database – Reedmace

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4 Comments on Cattails – A Wild Plant of Many Uses

  1. Yen says:

    Awesome write, refreshing site design, continue the great work

  2. Jade says:

    Thanks for all the cattail info. I love these plants, but I have yet to try eating them. I’m especially intrigued by the “flour!”

    • Squiffy says:

      Thanks Jade, yeah the flour is intriguing! Cattail seeds have even been found in the stomachs of prehistoric people who’ve fallen into bogs (maybe while looking for their next cattail meal!), yet these days we don’t eat them at all.

      Great blog by the way — you have some great photos and your site design really inspires me to add a graphical toolbar to Fascinating Experiments when I get round to it.

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