Cattails are grasslike plants with strap-shaped leaves 1 to
5 centimeters wide and growing up to 1.8 meters tall. The male
flowers are borne in a dense mass above the female flowers. These
last only a short time, leaving the female flowers that develop
into the brown cattail. Pollen from the male flowers is often
abundant and bright yellow.
Habitat and Distribution
Cattails are found throughout most of the world. Look for
them in full sun areas at the margins of lakes, streams, canals,
rivers, and brackish water.
The young tender shoots are edible raw or cooked. The rhizome
is often very tough but is a rich source of starch. Pound the
rhizome to remove the starch and use as a flour. The pollen is
also an exceptional source of starch. When the cattail is immature
and still green, you can boil the female portion and eat it like
corn on the cob.
The dried leaves are an excellent source of weaving material
you can use to make floats and rafts. The cottony seeds make
good pillow stuffing and insulation. The fluff makes excellent
tinder. Dried cattails are effective insect repellents when burned.
If you learn only one wild plant, make this the one. Cattails
are about the most useful plants you could have. This is partly
because cattails have so many edible and useful parts, but also
because it is so widespread, and often grows in large patches.
The young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked.
The tender white bottom part of the stems taste a bit like
cucumbers raw, and closer to corn when cooked.
The young seed heads, while still green (as in the photo)
can be boiled and eaten like corn-on-the-cob.
The pollen spikes can be shaken into a paper or plastic bag
to provide protein-rich soup-thickener or flour.
The rope-like rhizomes can be mashed and pounded in water,
and the starch that settles out can be added to soups, or cooked
The roots were also pounded into a paste, to apply to and
treat wounds, burns, rashes, and sores.
The leaves have been woven together to make everything from
temporary clothing to floor mats and baskets of all sorts.
The seed head fluff was once used to stuff life-preservers,
and is a great insulator. In an emergency, you can stuff the
the inside of your jacket full of it, effectively turning a light
jacket into a winter coat.
Cattail "fluff" also lights easily from a spark,
making it great emergency tinder.