It has been said that if a lost person finds cattails they have everything they need to survive – fuel, water, food, and shelter material.
Cattails, also known as bulrushes or greater reed mace in Europe, get their American name from their unique cylindrical flower spikes.
No other plant, in their mature stage, look like cattails and they are easy to identify.
However, younger plants look much like three different toxic plants so always look for last year’s brown flower tails to confirm that you really have found young cattails.
Better safe than sorry, always.
No green plant produces more edible starch per acre than cattails. They produce 6,475 pounds of flour per year on average on just one acre, beating potatoes and rice in this aspect.
Two species of cattails are common in North America, Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia. T. latifolia likes shallower water, while T. angustifolia prefers deeper water. Don’t let that fool you though, it is not unusual to find them living side by side and even crossbreeding in the wild.
In the field it is difficult for the unexperienced to tell them apart but don’t fret, it doesn’t really matter because both are edible and just as usable.
Cattail are oval at the base and mature plants produce the classic brown cylindrical flower spikes. They are hard to miss.
Taste and smell
Cattails are very mild tasting and without much aroma. If you think you have found cattail but it is strongly flavored and/or aromatic you have the wrong plant and should not eat it.
If you have a way to start a fire and a pond nearby you have a nutritious meal waiting to be had. Even without these you can still have a delicious snack.
To harvest, grab them near the base and pull diagonally, the shoot will separate from the main plant.
The young tips of the plant are edible as is the white bottom of the stalk. Spurs off the main roots and the spaghetti like rootlets are all edible, but the main root requires some processing.
The pollen can be used like flour, but if the plant has the classic brown head you’ve already missed the pollen.
Cattails are the Wal-Mart of the woods.
Their dried spikes make great torches and overall they are some of the best tinder you can find. Indians used them as insulation and padding for their mattresses, for hemp, stuffing, diapers, and even for menstruation.
Survival Pro-tip: If you have cattails then you have water. No matter where you are in North America, walk downstream to find help. Civilization is almost always downstream of a water source in the Americas.
If you’re the lucky type your cattail bounty may have a surprise for you. Like most aquatic plants, cattails are home to a beetle grub that fish absolutely love.
Find a green cattail and look for an outer leaf that has turned brown at the base. If luck is with you, you will find a grub big enough for a small hook. Fish go crazy for them.
Also, the core of the roots can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute.
Processing The Roots
The roots have a fibrous part that must be removed. Don’t eat this fiber, it will give you a bad stomach ache.
Scrub the exterior of the roots and then throughly crush them into pulp in clean potable water. Pick out as much of the fibrous parts as possible, let the remainder sit while the starch (what you’re after) settles to the bottom, then pour off the water.
It usually takes a couple of drain and settle sessions to remove all of the fiber. Once you’re left with just the starch, spread it out and let it dry into a flour-like powder. Use your cattail flour like you would any other flour.
This is all pretty labor intensive, especially if you must purify the water every time.
Peel the roots while they are wet (they are hard to peel when dry), chop them into small pieces, and dry them out throughly.
After they are dry, pound them out with a mallet, hammer, or your knife handle. You may need to wet them a little to make them pliable. Remove the long fibers and finish drying the fine powder into something akin to flour.
If you have no pots or pans nor time to waste, simply boil the roots like potatoes and chew on them like a piece of grass, spitting out the fibers.
You can also roast the root in a fire until the outside is completely black then chew the starch out of the fiber in the same manner.
IDENTIFICATION: Cattails grow up to 9 feet tall, 6-7ft are most common. The leaves are strap-like with a spongy inside. They join together at base and appear “flattened” and oval.
The back of the leaves are rounded. The “blossom” is cigar shaped and very densely packed with tiny flowers. Once pollinated the flowers turn into the classic brown seed head. The roots grow horizontally from a main root.
WHERE: Cattails grow next to rivers, ponds, lakes, and even ditches. They line the shore and farther out into the water.
WHEN: You will see young spikes, pollen, and flowers in the spring. By the fall the classic seed head will have developed, and several may still be left from last seasons growth.
Check out this great video courtesy of David’s Passage for hands-on identification and more.