Wilderness Underfoot: The Supermarket of the swamps

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StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11206710951275.jpg’, ”, ‘The cattail –Four species of cattails are found in North America, and two of these are common in Illinois: Typha latifolia, with broader leaves, and Typha angustifolia, a more slender plant (shown here). These plants are invaluable in many kinds of wetlands. They reproduce from tiny seeds on the flower spike, which fluff off and disperse after the growing season. They also multiply when their thick roots (rhizomes) send up new shoots. In the right conditions, cattails can be extremely productive. The leaves die in the fall, and in the spring the plants grow higher atop each new layer of vegetation. As a colony of cattails expands, it can alter the ecology of a wetland, lowering water levels and sometimes encroaching on other plants in the ecosystem. Occasionally, it is necessary to control cattails to prevent them from overtaking a habitat. Cattails can be found in wet ditches along roadsides, in wetlands, sedge meadows, and on the edges of streams, rivers and lakes. Many wetland animals benefit from the plant as a food source, as a material for building nests, and as a place to live. Birds nest in the leaves, and fish nest in the submerged roots. The stalks, spikes and roots are eaten by many animals. ‘);

Few plants are as beneficial to humans and animals as cattails

When the late naturalist Euell Gibbons called the cattail the “supermarket of the swamps,” he wasn’t exaggerating about the value of this plant. In modern times, we have replacements for many of the cattail’s earlier beneficial uses, but that doesn’t diminish its long and important service to humankind.

From appearances, you might not guess that nearly all parts of this plant can be eaten. The plant’s rhizomes (roots), stalk, leaves, and spike have been harvested as food by Native Americans since ancient times. Many people still use the plant for food. The thick rhizomes are typically collected between fall and spring, when they have the most starch and nutrients stored from the growing season. They are pounded into flour or used like potatoes. In the spring, the bulbous base and young shoots can be eaten raw or pickled. Pollen from the flower spike can be used as flour, and fluff from the spike can be mixed with tallow for chewing gum.

Cattail leaves were important building materials for the woodland Native Americans of our region. The long slender leaves were used for weaving baskets, mats and thatching in the roofs of wigwams. The leaves were also used for rush seating in early American chairs.

From the July 6-12, 2005, issue

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