Most people can spot a cattail when they see one in the wild, but did you know that it is actually an edible plant. They usually grow in marshes and swamps, but can be found anywhere there is water. I have personally seen them growing in most of the Virginia State Parks I have visited. The cattail has so many uses that it is considered by some to be the supermarket of the wild. Once you know of its uses, it may be hard to disagree.
Cattails actually have multiple edible parts which can be harvested at different times of the season. Pollen from the flower stalks was used by Native Americans to make breads, and it is still used by some to replace part of the flour used in recipes. The pollen is high in vitamins and minerals. Before the flower forms, there is and edible shoot that Russians refer to as “cossackis asparagus”. The tender shoots can be eaten into the summer and are said to be like a combination of zucchini and cucumbers. The shoots are also rich in vitamins and minerals. The male portion of the flower can be harvested while it is immature and steamed. It is said to have a taste reminiscent of corn and it actually has a central cob-like core. This is one of the best wild vegetation sources of calories, protein, and unsaturated fats. From fall until spring, cattail rhizomes can be harvested and consumed for their starch. They are dug out of the ground, washed, and peeled. The starch can be used in any recipe that calls for starch.
On top of its edible uses, Native Americans also used cattails medicinally and for making everyday objects. They would collect the jelly from between the leaves and apply it to wounds and sores to relieve pain. The fluffy white seeds were used to start fires, fill blankets, and stuff toys. Cattail leaves can be used to make mats, thatch roofs, and weave baskets. The dried brown flower heads can be burnt to help keep insects away.
In addition to all their other uses, cattails help improve water and soil quality. Organic pollutants are made harmless by this plant and they also add nitrogen to the soil. This is an important function for maintaining healthy ecosystems. This is why I am always happy to see cattails growing in our state parks. Now that you know of its uses, you may never look at a cattail the same way again.