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The Cattail - One of the Most Useful Plants

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What's the best of the best wild edible plants you should know? This depends on whether you are collecting a tasty meal, or need maximum calories, and it also depends on the season and your location. Still, despite all these qualifications, there is one plant that stands out as especially important in North America: The cattail.

Latin name typha latifolia (and a few other species), the cattail is one of the first of the wild edible plants that all backpackers should get to know. The several edible parts are just the start of its usefulness. One part or another of the plant can be harvested for food whatever the time of year. Then there are the other uses.

Cattail Plant

Spring

Find a cattail swamp and cut the fresh tips of the plants from the muck. Clean them in some safe water and they are edible either raw or cooked in any variety of ways. When you know the plant, identifying the new shoots is easy. Stalks and dried flower heads of the old plants are always standing in the swamps and wet areas they live in.

Summer

You can first harvest the tender stems early in summer, which are white and ready to eat for the first few inches up from the base. Pull slowly and they will often come loose easily. They taste something like cucumber when raw, and more like corn when cooked.

In mid to late summer the green flower heads can be cooked and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. In some places you can collect a meals worth in a minute or two.

The yellow pollen will be falling from the spike atop the flower heads during the summer as well, and can be shaken into a paper bag to use in thickening soups or even mixed with flour for making bread or pancakes.

Fall

Locate the cattail by the old stalks and dig up the rope-like roots that criss-cross the swampy soil. Wash these, mash them in water and let the mix sit for a few hours or longer. When you pour off the water you'll have a gooey mass of starch at the bottom of the bowl or tub. Use this to make a bread of sorts, or just put it into emergency soups for some good starchy calories.

Winter

Use the roots, just as in the fall, if the water or mud isn't frozen too hard. Often you can dig into the muck and find fresh new tips of the plants to eat as well, especially later in winter.

Other Uses

Fresh plant tips, tender parts of the stalks, flower heads, pollen, and the roots - that's five edible parts in all. At least one available in each season too, but that's not all. Cattail "fluff" which makes up the seed heads of the mature plants was once used to stuff life jackets, and is still perfect as insulation in an emergency. If ever lost and without sufficient clothing, fill your jacket with it, or use it to make a warm mattress.

The flower head fluff is also very flammable, making it a good tinder. Open up a mature flower head with your hands (available almost any time of the year) and make a pile of the fibers. A match, or even a good spark, will cause it to burst into flame. Fortunately, the tight seed heads are usually dry inside even after a heavy rain.

Cattail leaves are long and flat, making them easy to weave into simple mats for sitting on, laying on, or serving food on. They were woven into baskets and other containers for many centuries. Cattail stems were used for weaving and other purposes too.

If you have a knife or blade of some sort (a sharp rock perhaps) the leaves can be gathered in large quantity and used as roofing material for an emergency shelter. As with all roofing, start at the bottom of the roof and overlap layers as you move up to the peak, so the rain runs off properly.

The common cattail plant is not only one of the best wild edibles, but one of the best wilderness plants to know period. Not many plants have five edible parts and several parts that are useful for a variety of survival uses. They can be found in wet places across North America. Backpackers and others who spend time in the wilderness should get to know the cattail before all other wild plants.



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The Ultralight Backpacking Site | The Cattail - One of the Most Useful Plants