Cattails, bulrush, punks, its all the same plant in the Typha genus. Cattails are a supermarket for a forager, and they provide lots of valuable resources as well. Many parts of the cattail plant are edible in some way, and it can provide parts that are useful for everything from fire to shelter. Another benefit is that it grows across most of the United States, so it is another easily identified plant that can be foraged just about anywhere there is water.
Even though I didn’t get a picture of it, because it’s the wrong time of year, this is the plant that you see in wet areas such as the edges of ponds, ditches, and low areas that looks like tall grass with a velvety hotdog wiener on a stick. Don’t laugh, you know what I’m talking about. The best I could do was to get a few pictures of the fluffy mess that results when the “velvety hotdog wiener” releases the fluff that carries its fertilized seeds hither and yonder.
As you can see from the above picture, they are quite distinctive, but they’ve lost their wiener on a stick motif. Before they go to molting like a overworked horny toad, the immature brownish velvety wiener on a stick thing, which is actually the flowering part of the plant is edible raw or cooked. People often boil it, and eat it like corn on the cob with butter and such. I’ve actually never tried this, but I might have to give it a run.
The plant itself has long thick grass-like leaves that grow out of a wet area or muddy embankment of some sort. One characteristic of cattails that sets them apart from one of their poisonous counterparts is that they have a round stem all the way down to the base of the plant. Members of the poisonous Iris family will have a flat base with the leaves branching out like a woman’s hand held fan. If the base is round, and you found old cattail flower stalks and head from the prior year, then you’re in business.
Cattails are one of those plants that can actually act as a filtering plant. This means that if there are heavy metals, chemicals, or impurities left behind in the soil or water from the dumping of chemicals, pesticides or runoff from some nasty source, then it will be concentrated in the plant. Regardless of what comic books tell you, chemical spills will not turn you into a super hero. It will make your hair fall out, give you nut cancer, and other forms of unpleasantness! The filter-plant thing is great for having nature do what it does best…filter our dirty habits…clean up our nasty lifestyles. The Louisiana marshes are known for leaching all of the toxins that flow down the Mississippi River from the rest of the country, but with the hurricanes and coastal erosion constantly depleting them, all of the crap produced by the rest of the country is less effectively filtered out by the limited marshlands we have left. Another topic for another day. In the same manner, cattails can filter the nasty junk out of the soil and water, and those would be the cattails you would want to avoid eating as much as possible.
In the early spring, I like to locate a stand of cattails, and find the young and tender shoots that are just beginning to grow. You are looking for stalks that have a base diameter that is roughly the size of a film canister or smaller. The great thing about harvesting these tender young shoots is that God, in his infinite wisdom, constructed this plant in such a way that when you pull on the stalk, the rhizomes stay in the mud, and the stalk breaks cleanly away leaving a flat base. This makes this plant a cinch to harvest, and leaves behind the rhizome or root to make new shoots. In a good pair of boots, you can walk through a swampy area, and pull these things by the ton if you really wanted to.
After the stalks are collected, they need to be washed in clean water, and the tough leafy ends can be cut away. Then you can peel away the layers of leaves from the outside of each stalk until only the tender core is left behind. A tip is that if there is any green showing, then you probably haven’t pealed enough.
I think that the tender stalks smell and taste like fresh cucumbers, and so do my girls. I like to eat them raw, but you can cook them much like you would asparagus. The ones pictured below were eaten raw by Mr. Greatoudoordinary, and 2 of his little Munchkins.
As already mentioned, the immature flowering part of the plant can be eaten raw or cooked. In mid-summer, the pollen that the stalk puts out can be collected by placing a brown paper bag over the stamen, then shake that thing like it’ll earn you money. The pollen can be used to thicken soups or to extend flour. I’ve never done this because it seems like a major pain in the lump, and I’ve had the good fortune of having something much better to do with my mid-summer time than collecting cattail sperm to thicken my soup.
The white crispy new roots are edible raw or cooked, but once they become fibrous, they must be handled differently. To remove the starch out of the fibrous roots, you could boil it, and chew on it until you get the starch out, then spit out the fiber. You can also pound the rhizomes in water, and dehydrate the water out leaving behind a gluten rich flour that can be used to cook with. This seems like an immense waste of time unless you were in a survival situation, so I haven’t done this.
As an aside, the leaves are a great material for making cordage, or for weaving. There exists many a crafty outdoorsman or outdoorswoman who has constructed some useful item from the long leaves of the Typha. In addition, the fluffy down-like material that comes off of the flower head makes fantastic tender for starting fires. It also floats, and has been reported to have been used in life jackets in years past (just don’t smoke while you are floating, because you are basically floating with a fire starter around your neck). The down also makes great insulation. I’m not sure how long it would take to construct a flotation device or a cattail down jacket, but if you’re stranded in the wilderness, I’m sure you could pencil it in.
AS WITH ANY OF THE INFORMATION CONTAINED ON THIS WEBSITE, DO NOT USE THE INFORMATION CONTAINED HEREIN FOR IDENTIFICATION OF ANY WILD PLANT OR OTHER MATERIAL. IT IS FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY, AND YOU SHOULD CONSULT WITH A QUALIFIED EXPERT BEFORE YOU CONSUME ANY PART OF A WILD PLANT. A MISTAKE CAN BE FATAL. DON’T BE A MORON.
DON’T CONSUME ANYTHING TO TREAT THE BODY IN ANY WAY WITHOUT FIRST CONSULTING WITH A PHYSICIAN. AGAIN, DON’T BE A MORON.