Cattail – a Versatile, Edible, Wild Plant

The cattail is a familiar plant distributed worldwide, generally flourishing near open and marshy water, often getting up to 10 feet in height. If you plan on doing some culinary experiments with cattails, avoid those growing in areas exposed to traffic pollutionc, otherwise heavily polluted, or receiving farm field chemical runoff.

It’s a messy business gathering cattails, but it is a truly versatile plant generally available summer and winter.

Keep in mind that the lookalike wild flag or wild iris, which possesses a blue-purple flower, is poisonous. It has a similar appearance but no telltale “cattail”, the puffy, brown seed spike that grows atop a stalk protruding from the center of a cluster of leaves. Cattail leaves are wider than those of the lookalike’s and more hollow. Leaves of the wild flag are iris-like and flat to the bottom.

How to prepare:

RAW. Tender white cattail shoots pulled from the water are edible raw. The core of the shoot is crisp, tender, and white. In Russia, the peeled, raw shoots are prized as “Cossack’s salad.” The taste is mildly cucumber-like. Pickle in vinegar or eat with a dip. The pollen can be eaten raw when, for example, sprinkled in a salad.

COOKED. Steam the root of the shoot for 10 minutes, serve with butter or cream sauce. Taste resembles mild parsnips. In the spring, the cattail spike, or staminate, located above the green seedhead can be prepared like corn on the cob. Drop the spikes you’ve gathered into boiling water for 5-10 minutes or until tender. Butter and salt to taste. You can also prepare the green, cigar-shaped seedhead the same way, as long as none of it has turned brown. When the male spike turns from green to yellow, you wind up with something different. The yellow substance is protein-rich pollen which can be used as-is as a flour supplement at a ratio of no more than 50-50. Put the pollen-covered spikes in a paper bag and shake. Sift the pollen that collects to remove the chaff. After preparing flour/pollen batter for bread or cornbread, be sure to let it sit for a half hour to absorb the water since pollen is not as absorbent as flour. You can also cook the root. Use a pointed digging stick to get the root out of the water. Clean, slow roast until dry, grind in a mortar or by crushing in a bowl of water, removing fibers, to create a flour substitute which, in the case of the water-filled bowl will settle to the bottom. Or prepare the root like a potato, either roasting and serving up with salt and butter or mashing with a fork.

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ADDITIONAL USES. The dry fluff is excellent tinder for fire-starting. Leaves can be dried and woven into baskets, to thatch a roof, or as mats for rafts. Native American kids had dolls made of folded cattail leaves, similar to corn husk dolls. Cottony seeds are good as pillow stuffing and insulation. Burn dried cattails as an insect repellent.

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