This monoecious plant is one of the best wild foods for foragers to know about. The entire plant is edible. Knowing which parts are most delicious in which season is key.
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Cattails: Plant Profile and Aliases
From the Typhaceae family, the scientific name of cattail is Typha latifolia. T. latifolia is the most common cattail. It is a perennial plant that is aquatic or semi-aquatic.
This plant is native to North America, South America, Africa, Europe, and Asia. It has been introduced to many countries and is considered an invasive species in Australia and Hawaii.
The male and female flowers work together to transform through the seasons. The male flower is the small spike above the “cigar” or “hot dog,” also known as the female flower. Before the male pollinates the female, she is green. After pollination, she turns brown.
Aside from cattail, which is the most popular common name, you’ll hear this plant referred to as a few different things, depending on where you are in the world.
- American English: reed, cat’o’nine tails, broadleaf cattail
- British English: bulrush, reedmace
- Australia: cumbungi
- Philippines: soil soil
- New Zealand: raupo
Are Cattails Edible?
While most plants only have edible parts, the entire T. latifolia plant can be eaten. The rhizomes, outer leaves, pollen, fluff, and shoots are easily transformed into delicious snacks.
Evidence shows that Native Americans and Europeans consumed the plant in prehistoric times.
All parts of the plant have different ideal times of the year for harvesting.
- Winter/Fall: Even though the rhizomes (cattail roots) are edible throughout the year, they are less fibrous in the winter and fall.
- Spring: The catkins (hot dog/cigar-shaped portion on the flower stalk) can be harvested in spring while still green. The catkins are slightly more challenging to spot because they are hidden in the leaves. Peel away the outer leaves to reveal young shoots and stalks you can eat cooked or raw.
- Summer: At the end of June, the catkins are mature, and you can shake the pollen off of them and use it as flour.
Can You Eat a Cattail Fluff?
Cattails are the ultimate survival food because all parts of the cattail are edible – from the roots to the fluff.
However, a mouthful of fluff isn’t very delicious, and there are many other ways to use this wild plant. Once the seed head turns brown, it becomes fluff.
This fluff can be used as:
- Tinder for a fire
- Insulation or stuffing
- Insect repellant (when lit on fire)
- Cotton balls
Are Cattails Poisonous in Any Way?
Typha latifolia is not poisonous to humans, cats, dogs, and most livestock. For some reason, it is mildly toxic to horses, causing gastrointestinal discomfort. The same goes for dogs if they eat too much.
However, it is important to know that there is a toxic look-a-like. Poison iris looks like a cattail missing its seed (cigar).
A few other differences are that the poison iris has emerald green pointy leaves, while the cattail leaves are usually a blue/green color with a rounded tip.
If you cut the plant’s stem, poison irises usually have a purple center; cattails do not. Finally, if you cut a leaf off, you’ll find that the poison iris has a diamond shape, and the cattail has a crescent shape.
Additionally, it is important to beware of pollutants. You always want to harvest cattails from areas with clean water. The plant will have absorbed some of those toxins if the water is polluted.
What Does a Cattail Taste Like?
All parts of the plant have different flavor profiles. Learning how to eat this wild edible plant will unlock a world of wonder for any outdoor enthusiast.
Young cattail shoots can be eaten cooked or raw. This section of the plant is often called cossack asparagus. Although, if you harvest the shoots in the spring, they are more similar to cucumbers. If you steam the young shoots, they are similar to cabbage.
The green female flower can be eaten like corn on the cob before it is pollinated. Boil or steam it and mix the flower with butter and salt.
The pollen from the male flower can also be collected and used to make cattail flour. You can use this to make pancakes, bread, and more.
The base of the plant, where it attaches to the rhizome, can be boiled or roasted, like a potato.
The root, or rhizome, can also be treated like a potato or cooked and peeled like an artichoke. The fibrous parts of the roots can be ground down to make a type of cornstarch.
When it comes to eating cattail, the options are endless. You can pickle it, stir-fry it, grill it, boil it, and more.
Adding a few cattail recipes to your weekly repertoire will not only impress your family, but it will also save you money.
What Is Inside a Cattail?
The root contains lots of starchy carbohydrates. After the root is ground into flour, cattails produce over 6,000 pounds of starch per acre – that’s more than potatoes, yams, and rice.
The stalks and leaves contain potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A, B, and C. The cattail pollen is also a great source of protein.
Aside from being an edible plant, the cattail plant has many other uses.
- It plays an important role in the underwater ecosystem. It acts as fish food and a fish haven. Additionally, it provides insulation and keeps mammals warm underwater when the temperature drops.
- Birds use it as nesting material.
- The fluff can be used to make pillow or mattress stuffing, jacket stuffing and insulation, and other furniture.
- The leaves can be used to make baskets, mats, and shelter. If you get creative, you can use the leaves and fluff to make diapers.
- You can use the ashes from the burnt leaves as an antiseptic for wounds and burns.
- Near the root and young leaves, there is a sap that is said to work as an analgesic and antiseptic.
Can I Grow Cattails in My Yard?
Unless you live near a body of fresh water, growing T. latifolia in your yard is not ideal but is doable. This plant thrives in the northern hemisphere, specifically in wetlands. USDA hardiness zones 3-9 with full sun or partial shade are best.
If you plant them in your yard, ensure you have enough room. They tend to grow between six and ten feet tall.
You can plant them directly in the ground or in pots with soggy soil. You can plant them in 12 inches of water if you have the option.
Beware: they grow and spread rapidly.
The next time someone asks you, “Are cattails edible?”, you can shock them with your impressive knowledge of delicious ways to eat this wild plant.
As I mentioned before, always be sure that the plant you plan to eat was grown in clean, non-polluted water.