The Cattail - One of the Most Useful Plants
By Steve Gillman
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.