The versatile cattail

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118538908418501.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert A. Hedeen’, ‘The common cattail has many uses by man and other animals.‘);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-118538913818684.jpg’, ‘Photo courtesy of‘, ‘One Indian name for the cattail meant “fruit for papoose’s bed” because the fluffy masses of seeds are soft and do not mat.‘);

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 plants, including the cattail, have a multitude of possible uses by man. Actually, the Native Americans were adept users 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; the cattail is a prime example of this.

Cattails, both broad and narrow leaf species, are familiar plants in northern Illinois and elsewhere, though a 1955 publication listing the plants of Winnebago County cites them as being rare locally. The cattail is an erect plant with blade-like leaves, and above them, on a slender stalk, is the cylindrical flowering head that is green and velvety in early summer. Resembling a cat’s tail, the upper part of the flowering head contains the male flowers that drop off soon 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 seeds. Each seed has a tuft of fine hairs that assist its dispersal by the wind when the head opens in the fall.

Cattails are characteristically found in wetlands, their presence indicating an environment in transition. To the entomologist searching for mosquito breeding sites, the presence of cattails indicates the likely location of an incubator for the pestiferous flood-water type mosquito, the most important group of bloodsuckers in our area.

One Indian name for the cattail meant “fruit for papoose’s 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 for life jackets, mattresses, pillows, and even baseballs. 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 may 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 nearby. Growing horizontally in the mud, the thick, branching rootstock is rich in carbohydrate. The 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 sweet taste, and they are easily pulled out of the muck or dug, even in deep snow. They are delicious if eaten raw, baked or roasted ash-sheathed in the glowing embers of a campfire.

Cattail flour contains more fat and slightly less protein than potato or wheat flour, but only potato flour contains more minerals. In certain areas of the country, the flour is fermented into a potent alcoholic beverage 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—delightful!

When the flower spikelets become covered with pollen, it may be easily gathered by rubbing or shaking it into a container and then be used in preparing breadstuffs. Years ago in the Army Wilderness Survival School, I learned that a 50-50 mixture of cattail pollen and flour made an excellent pancake mix.

Muskrats keep growths of cattail in check as they use the plant in most aspects of their lives. They eat the young shoots in the spring, the leaves and stems in the summer, and the rhizomes in the winter. Their lodges are mainly made of cattail leaves. Cattails provide safe nesting areas for some birds, and in winter cattail fluff is used by small mammals to insulate their homes. Birds use it to line their nests in the spring.

As winter progresses, most marsh plants die back to ground level, but the cattail with its rigid stalk stands firm against the harsh winds. I admire such resoluteness in any plant or animal.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 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.

from the July 25-31, 2007, issue

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