Cat Tails

Cattails along the road in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Cattails along the road (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

Like fat cigars mounted on tall stakes, quirky cattails are popping up in wetlands all across the Northern Hemisphere.  The most recognized species in the United States are Typha latifolia (common or broad leaved cattail) and its narrower leafed cousin, Typha augustifolia (narrow leaved cattail), which produce masses of plants in our native wetlands.  Typha grows in colonies from rhizomous roots along shorelines where water levels remain shallow, spreading over time to cover large areas.  The plant bares showy brown punk that eventually breaks down, allowing its white fluffy seeds to disperse across the wetland.  In areas of the U.S. such as the Great Lakes region and the Everglades, native cattails have become aggressive by overtaking other native wetland species.  This is being controlled somewhat by cutting plants down to the ground, preventing fertilization and reproduction.

Cattails along Housatonic River in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Cattails along the Housatonic River (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

What you may not know (as I didn’t) is that cattails are not only a delicious source of food for native mammals, but parts of the plant are nutritious for humans as well (full of niacin, beta carotene, vitamin C, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium and phosphorus).  Once a major staple for native Indians, just about all parts of this starchy plant are tasty and beneficial.  The outer layers of the stalk are removed to reveal the tender inside, and if eaten during the late spring to early summer, the flavor and texture of the raw stem are said to resemble asparagus, while the cooked form has a corn like element.  According to the adventurous Steve Brill, “A stand of cattails is as close as you’ll get to finding a wild supermarket”.  That said, if you are going to try eating cattail remember that there are toxic plants that look similar until mid-spring when the Typha latifolia or augustifolia will be unmistakable because of its height. (Check out Wildman Steve Brill for fun stories and recipes like Cattail with Fried Rice and Raw Cattail Soup by visiting: www.wildmanstevebrill.com/Plants.Folder/Cattails.html).

Cattails at a nearby pond in A Garden For All by Kathy Diemer http://agardenforall.com

Cattails at a nearby pond (photo by: Kathy Diemer)

In addition to health and beauty benefits, cattails also have medicinal purposes: leaves can be used to cover a wound, to soothe sores, inflammation, burns and help reduce pain.  Stalks and leaves have been utilized to feed livestock, to construct rafts and floating devices, to make paper, thatch roofs, baskets, mats, even as a fuel source for making ethanol.  The seed hairs can be used as stuffing for bedding and pillows, and the punky top could serve as a candle that repels insects when burned.  Cattails have also been used to help improve water and soil quality by filtering out contaminants in places like the Nile River.  Whether you decide to chomp on a few or just admire from a distance, funky cattails will continue sashaying across our native wetlands for years to come.

*Note: As I was photographing cattails at different locations, there was a noticeable chorus resonating at each place: listen at: ctamp.homestead.com/bullgreen.html

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Comments

  1. Thanks for quoting me in your post, Kathy. You forgot to warn your readers never to pull out a cattail if there’s an animal rights person nearby! Here’s some more info:

    There are no “female plants.” Cattails have both male and female parts on the same plant.

    The cigar-shaped male part of the flower head, long before the puffy white seeds of the female flower develop, is delicious and healthful, prepared like corn on the cob. It’s dry, so it’s great served with any kind of savory or creamy sauce.

    Once it matures, the male flower head becomes covered with golden pollen that you can shake into a paper bag, sift, and use as flour, in combination with whole-grain flours.

    Some authors recommend eating the rhizomes, but I’ve found that wrenching them out of the mud, hosing them down, and separating a few tablespoons of starch from the fibers is too many hours of work for so little food.

    For more details, check out my iPhone/iPad/Android app, Wild Edibles.

    Happy Foraging!

    “Wildman” Steve Brill

    • Wow Steve, Thank you for all that additional information! I removed the female/male plant reference completely and I appreciate your correction. When I photographed these various locations, I admit the terrain did not look tempting enough for me to dive in and harvest stalks, however point taken regarding possible environmental violations for those that may embark on that endeavor! Happy Trails to you~

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