By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist
Much of the folklore regarding the practical use of so-called wild plants for clothing, food, medicines, shelter, and tools has been forgotten. Now a relatively new science called Chemurgy is rediscovering that many of our common plantsincluding the cattailshave a multitude of possible uses by man. Actually, the early American Indians were adept students of chemurgy, but they did not realize it at the time. Many of the uses of plants the Indians discovered were passed on to the early settlers and persist to the present day. The cattail is a prime example of this type of plant.
Cattails, both the broad and narrow leaf species, are familiar plants in northern Illinois, though a 1955 publication listing the plants of Winnebago County indicates they were rare locally at that time. The cattail is an erect plant with blade-like leaves, and above them, on a slender stalk, is the cylindrical flower-head which is green and velvety in early summer. Resembling a cats tail, the upper part of the flowering head contains the male flowers that drop off after they have shed their pollen. The lower, larger part of the flowering head contains the female flowers that develop into a brown, compact mass consisting of as many as 300,000 tiny seeds. Each seed has a tuft of fine white hairs that assists its dispersal by the wind when the head opens in autumn.
Cattails are characteristically found in wetlands, their presence indicating an environment in transition; the normal ecological succession from wetland into dry land. To the entomologist searching for mosquito breeding sites, the presence of cattails indicates a likely incubator of the pestiferous flood-water type mosquito, the most important group of bloodsuckers in our area.
One Indian name for the cattail meant fruit for papooses bed because the fluffy masses of seeds are soft and do not mat. Countless pounds of cattail seeds were used during World War II as stuffing in life jackets, mattresses, pillows, and even baseballs. Compressed into wallboard, the versatile seeds were found to provide excellent insulation against sound and heat. A drying oil (similar to linseed oil), a cooking oil, and wax may be rendered from the seeds with a resulting by-product of meal that can be utilized as livestock or chicken feed.
For centuries, cattail leaves have been used to caulk barrels and twisted or braided into cord for making rush-bottomed furniture. The Indians wove the leaves into waterproof mats to construct their lodges and on which to sleep. Soft fibers extracted from the leaves by chemicals can be used like jute for stuffing furniture, or for making twine, burlap, or webbing.
If lost in the wilderness, no one should ever starve if cattails are present in the vicinity. Growing horizontally in the mud, the thick, branching rootstock is rich in carbohydrates. These starchy, energy-rich rhizomes may be eaten like potatoes, or dried and ground into flour for baking. The rhizomes, as well as the lower portions of the stem, have a sweetish taste. They are easily pulled out of the muck or dug up, even in deep snow. They are delicious, as well as nutritious, if eaten raw, baked, roasted ash-sheathed in the glowing embers of a campfire, or briefly boiled.
Cattail flour contains more fat and slightly less protein than potato or wheat flour, but only potato flour contains more minerals. In certain parts of the country the flour is fermented into a potent alcoholic beverage, sometimes called swamp lightning.
The greenish-yellow flower spikes, before they become covered with pollen, can be gathered, husked as you would corn, and dropped into salted boiling water to simmer until tender. You may eat them like corn on the cob, dripping in butter or margarine – delightful!
When the flower spikelets become covered with pollen, it can be gathered easily by rubbing or shaking into a container and subsequently used in preparing breadstuffs. Years ago in the Army Survival School, I learned one of the uses of cattails as food was to mix cattail pollen and flour in a 50-50 ratio and use the combination in any pancake recipe. The golden-brown pancakes resulting from this formula will long be remembered.
Muskrats help keep cattail growths in check as they use the plant in most aspects of their lives. The rodents eat the young shoots in the spring, the leaves and stems in the summer, and the energy-packed rhizomes in the fall and winter. The stalks and leaves are used to construct their weatherproof lodges.
Cattails provide safe nesting areas for many species of birds, and in winter cattail fluff is used by mice and other small mammals to insulate their homes. In the spring, birds use the fluff in the lining of their nests.
As winter progresses, most marsh plants die back to ground level, but the cattail stands strong and proud with its rigid stalk and brown seed head standing firm in seeming defiance of the harsh winter winds. I admire such resoluteness in either plant or animal.
Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Marylands eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.