How many uses of cattail are you utilizing? How many more are there?
It goes by the scientific name Typha domingensis. It has been called “the Supermarket of the Swamp” by some. One boy scout motto is, “You name it and we’ll make it from cattail”. You’ve probably gotten your hands on them before. They are likely growing abundantly in your area. It’s also quite possible many of us don’t realize how useful this commonplace plant is. This plant is, or course, the common cattail.
As mentioned in the About portion of this site, a big part of my interest is learning to recognize the natural abundance of the world we so often walk by. Personally, I think this practice helps me see the blessings scattered throughout my life, simply waiting for recognition.
Experimenting with historical skills is also something I spend a good deal of time involved in. Learning to walk, for a time, in the moccasin tracks of the past has been a great learning experience, and has taught me much about the world. I certainly wouldn’t call myself an “expert” by any means, and I don’t care if I ever am. I’m more interested in living the old truth, “It is the journey, not the destination.” Little by little my eyes are opening and understanding a small bit of how past people saw the world.
That being said, I can testify against the common pitfall of believing people of the past were dumb. They only had a different education than we do. Like ours, their education began when they were very young. Also like ours, their education equipped them with the skills to navigate their world. As with any system of education, you have to start with the very basics. Here is where the common cattail comes into play. If you find yourself interested in wild food, ancient skills, or the lives of past people, the cattail is a plant that you should know. Call it caveman kindergarten.
Cattail is a highly versatile plant. Not only can it be used for building, but the food uses are widely known. Although there are likely many more uses of cattail, here are the 8 ways I’ve found the useful thus fa.
As mentioned in the introduction, any discussion about the uses of cattail must address the food uses of the plant. Although any part of this plant can be safely eaten, there are a few choice bits folks tend to chase.
USE 1: The most popular part of the plant you can use for food is the root. It is technically called a rhizome, although I doubt knowing the difference will make it any more, or less, useful. These lay under the soil, and generally water, and can often be quite substantial in length and size. Nutritionally, the rhizome is high in starch, which makes it so appealing for someone in search of calories. Starch is a main fuel for the body and can provide a good deal of energy. Although finding caloric information on cattail root turns up few results, there is some information out there on nutritional information. My experience has suggested you’d have to consume quite a few cattail roots to meet caloric needs for a day.
When digging for cattail roots, you follow the stalk of the plant into underground and begin to slowly fish it out. Be patient and don’t pull too hard. Doing so will break off the root underground and leave you with little, or nothing, to eat. Once you have enough roots there are several ways to eat them. You can watch this video of Ray Mears to see two methods in action.
Although I have never personally tried the pulping method, I have tried the primitive fire method. My experience has shown that Ray’s favor for the plant cooked over a fire is spot on. These things are tasty. Cooking cattail roots on coals gives them a fantastic flavor I can’t help comparing to smoked baked potato. Part of this taste may be bits of charcoal I end up consuming, but it is a very tasty meal. If you are interested in getting a bit of food from the land, I would say cattail root is not only easy to find, but tastes great as well.
USE 2: In addition to using the roots for food, many sources advocate the use of cattail pollen as a flour substitute. I don’t have any personal experience here but hope to give it a test soon. Unlike harvesting the rhizomes, gathering pollen from the plant can only be done at a specific time of year. Generally early June in my neck of the woods.
As with any wild food, it is crucial to know how to identify the plant and harvest it safely. There is a toxic cattail look alike that you’ll want to pay close attention to. Also, as noted in my book Wild Season by Kay Young, being mindful of the water source of your cattails is important. These plants often live in standing water and naturally filter water. Don’t collect cattail from polluted waterways or you run the risk of consuming these pollutants.
USE 3: Long before I ever tried eating cattail, I learned its capability as a weaving material. Years ago I learned to use the stalk of the plant as material for a primitive arrow quiver. Cattail has the ability to make a decent weaving material, and my quiver has stood up for several years of light use. Although it takes a bit of time to process the stalks, it shouldn’t be overlooked in this regard.
Learning to weave with cattail is pretty easy, although it does take some time to process it down. To begin you need to head to a local marsh where plenty of cattail are growing. Once you find a good source you can start snapping mature stalks off above the ground. Peel the leaves off so you are left only with the rigid center stalk. You’ll need to collect a fairly substantial bundle while you are out, although it depends on your project. For a quiver I’d say get a full arm load and you should be good to go. Once you are home you can either get to work, or let them sit for a time. There is no rush to get started.
After the stalks have dried you can take a knife and split the stalk from bottom to top. They tend to spiral as you split them, but try and split the stalk from bottom to top in one piece. Split as many stalks as you can, and remove some of the pith on the inside while you go. After the stalks are split you can soak them in warm water to make them pliable. I soaked them for around 15 minutes before I started putting them to use. At this point you can use a standard weaving technique to build your quiver.
USE 4: I have also used the leaves for weaving simple mats. If you watched the Ray Mears video earlier in this post, you can get an idea of how these mats turn out. My experience has shown these mats are best for short periods of time. As the leaves dry, they shrink and create a poor weave. Admittedly, I’ve experimented only a few times with this practice, and can’t speak at length on the subject.
USE 5: Another way to use the versatile cattail is as a fire starter. The part of the plant you’ll need here is the easily identifiable seed head. To start a single fire, you shouldn’t need more than one of these heads. Remove the seeds from the stalk and you’ll soon be covered in cattail fluff, but you’ll have what you need. This fluff can be put straight into a tinder bundle to nurse your bow drill, or flint and steel, ember to life. It could also be lit using a match or lighter. Although it is not the best tinder, I have used it before with success.
USE 6: The way I’ve used cattail the most extensively for fire purpose, is as a char. Chars must be used for flint and steel fire starting. Cattail fluff is one source of all-natural material that works sufficiently for the task. To make this char, you’ll need the cattail fluff and a tin of some sort. An Altoids tin seems to be the iconic tin of our day.
Load the tin up with fluff and place it on an hot bed of coals. The tin will start to smoke as the cattail turns to char. After about 10 minutes it should stop smoking and your char should be done. Remove it and let it cool for a few minutes. If you did a good job this is good enough to catch a spark and get your fire going.
USE 7: I’ve also heard of people using the dry cattail stalks for a hand drill fire. Personally, my experiments at this have all failed somewhat miserably, but it can be done.
USE 8: At this point, I can’t claim any personal experience with the cattail shelter. For anyone interested though, you can watch this video by Shawn Woods. Shawn Woods is a Youtuber that has become exceptionally popular over the past few years for his bushcrafting and historic hunting. Not only is he good at what he does, but he has an artistic skill that sets him apart. You can give his video a watch here.
As you can see, the cattail shelter is certainly a viable option.
There you have it, 8 uses of cattail from kitchen, to deer hunting, to a winter shelter. These uses are the few I’ve personally put into use, or have seen people use. As you can see, this versatile plant is one specimen it pays to know. It highlights the natural bounty we tend to overlook.
As I’ve noted before, I personally don’t think the answer to the world’s problems is turning to plants like cattail. However, learning to recognize all the blessings in our everyday lives can help everyone. Not only that, but keeping some of this old knowledge alive is something worthwhile. If you find yourself being drawn to that ancient knowledge, the abundant cattail is certainly a plant worth knowing.
Thanks for taking the time to read this post on the uses of cattail. If you enjoyed it, please follow this blog by clicking the button near the bottom of the page. If you are interested in eating some more wild food, you might enjoy this post titled First Taste: Smoked Raccoon is Better Than You’d Guess.