In his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, the late Euell Gibbons referred to the lowly cattail as the “supermarket of the swamp.” I don’t think I’ve ever picked up a field guide on wild foods that didn’t profile these wetland dwellers and brag on what a delicacy they were.
Gibbons praised the cattail for its abundance and versatility, hence the nickname. Just about every part of the plant is useful at some part of the year. Not every part is edible, but even the unpalatable leaves can be woven into baskets and hats. Mature seed heads make great insulation or tinder.
These seed heads have distinct male and female components much like corn has a tassel and an ear. The top few inches is where the male portion exists and the thicker brown fuzzy section is the female part. Both are edible in the immature stage.
In spring, the young female part of the seed head can be boiled and eaten like miniature corn on the cob. Many report the flavor as pleasingly mild. To me they simply taste like the seasonings you use on them.
Pollen from the male portion can be used as flour in pancakes, cornbread and similar quick breads. Cattails produce copious amounts of the yellow stuff and reports on internet sites are glowing. I’ve never tried this but feel obligated to sample it next spring.
Roots, rhizomes (underground stems like those on irises and many grasses), and young stems are all edible. Moreover, their accessibility makes cattails invaluable as survival food. You can’t go any place in North America where wet soils dominate and not find them.
The common cattail, (Typha latifolia), is by far the most prevalent species, though three others exist in our range. All are readily identified by the brown seed head. They have long grass-like leaves, and the only plants that even remotely resemble them are the wild irises and then only young plants in early spring. Unfortunately, Irises are poisonous, so be careful.
So why does it sound like a but is coming? I guess I’m throwing a wet blanket on cattails because exaggeration always bothers me? In my opinion they are overrated. I’ve eaten the young stems, roots and rhizomes. They are difficult to clean and to me taste a lot like their surroundings.
Maybe I haven’t taken adequate time to cleanse all the stagnant mud and swamp water from them. Perhaps I have little appreciation for all the prep work. After all, I love lobster and crab. They both require significant effort and are certainly worth it. Furthermore, they are bottom dwelling scavengers and I don’t have a problem with their environment.
I don’t mean to offend lovers of the cattail. I don’t like boiled peanuts either. I love peanuts just about any other way though, even raw. To me cattails and boiled peanuts are very similar. I’d just as soon eat the substrate from which they grew.
Still I look forward to collecting pollen flour for cattail pancakes next spring. I’ll let you know how they turn out.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.