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Wild Foods: Cattail Roots

Updated on April 2, 2012

With every part of the plant being edible in some way and its distribution nearly universal across North America, the cattail is a good plant to know!

Each and every part of the wonderful, widespread and edible cattail plant (Typha latifolia.) has its use, depending on the season, but today we will talk about the roots.

I use the roots in a several ways--boiling and scraping for "mashed potatoes," soaking to dissolve the starch for use as flour and chopping them to pan-fry like potatoes.

This article will cover finding and harvesting the roots, safety precautions and preparing them to eat.

When to harvest

Cattail roots can be harvested any time of the year. I usually start in September, though it is perhaps not the ideal time to collect these roots, as they will be starchier and fuller later in the fall and into the winter with stored energy that the new plants will use to begin growing in the spring. But, too much later and the cattail swamps up here in the Colorado mountains will not only be frozen, but covered in several feet of snow! The roots provide enough starch to be worthwhile, year-round, and in many areas of the country can be harvested throughout the winter.

Root growth habits and harvesting

Cattail roots grow horizontally beneath the water and mud in areas of slowly flowing or still water, and can be found by digging down with your hand or with a sharp stick near the plants. Once you find a root, most of them no deeper than six inches beneath the mud, begin loosening and pulling it until you feel it coming free. Often you can free one to two foot sections, sometimes longer. Despite being a messy, muddy project, the root harvest is not especially difficult or labor intensive, especially if you have found a cattail patch with a good amount of standing water in it, as this will keep the muddy soil much looser and easier to free the roots from.

Root buds make a tasty snack

Even through the late fall, you will find a few tender white buds sprouting from the roots, and they make for a great snack while you work. No fibers in these, and they taste wonderful, like a very mild, starchy celery. Enjoy!

Freshly pulled root...

The roots will look mucky and black on the outside, but will be clean and starchy, once you cut or break them open.

The roots between small, newly emerged shoots are often the plumpest and easiest to pull, but all are good. You will often find, by feel, one root crisscrossing atop another, and it always pays to feel around in the mud beneath each root you pull, to see if there is another.

All done for the day!

Approximately fifteen pounds of roots, collected in just under an hour of pulling.

Wear old clothes and boots that you don't mind getting muddy when pulling cattail roots, as you will often end up submerged in thick black muck up past your ankles, and with mud splashed up to your elbows. Great fun, though slightly less so when temperatures start getting down near freezing!

Shoots can be eaten raw, as can slices out of younger, less fibrous roots, though the root starch becomes more fully digestible after cooking.

As cattails fairly readily absorb pollutants from the water, take care not to harvest in areas where farm, factory or other runoff may have caused dangerous contamination.

Wild "mashed potatoes," ready to eat!

Boiled and split root, fibers scraped to remove the starch for eating. This starch has a taste and consistency very much like mashed potatoes, only "smoother," and is equally filling!

Roots sliced and fried up just like potatoes, with eggs!

It is impossible to salvage all of the starch by scraping like this, so I will save the scraped roots to process for making flour.

Cattails grow in almost all areas of the country, from the sub alpine wilderness to the lowland suburbs, and can provide large quantities of food and other useful materials.

Books to help you identify, harvest and use wild edible plants - A healthy (and free!) way to add some variety to your diet...

All photos taken by the author, unless otherwise noted.

Tell us about it!

How have you used cattail roots, other parts of the plant or other wild edible plants? - Do you have any favorite methods of harvesting and/or preparing them?

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    • profile image

      windwalker 16 months ago

      I enjoy the young plants or the hearts of mature plants. Boiling them till tender they remind me of Asparagus.

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      Jan 21 months ago

      we have loads of cattails in Missouri. As kids we soaked the tops in kerosine and ran around acting like 'native americans.' ahem..' We also decorate with them, lovely bouquets for fall. Unless you have a cat. A cat will 'play' with the tops until your house is covered in about a foot of fluffy cattail top. The tops come off the stalk and you could stuff pillows with the resulting 'fluff'.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      gay fuccing bich.............. FUCC YOU

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      great job! i love tail! fuckre!

    • Jogalog profile image

      Jogalog 4 years ago

      I've never used these. I wish I knew more about wild foods though as I would love to get out foraging in the countryside.

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      anonymous 4 years ago

      Photos are not showing up for me either and I would love to see them. Is it on my end or yours? If yours, can you fix it? Thanks.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Is it possible for you to add the rest of the photos? I'd really like to see how you do up the cattail food. Been meaning to try these. Am very interested in the flour. What is the flour comparable to if I were to sub some into a recipe?

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I would love to try this, but sadly in Florida harvesting cat tails is illegal. But if a life or death situation develops, I'm all over it lol.

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Cattail roots are a lot like eating potatoes. :)

      ( BTW, some pictures are missing. )

    • xriotdotbiz lm profile image

      xriotdotbiz lm 5 years ago

      I really appreciate this lens as I have read my whole life about cat tails being edible but they never show how. Love all the photos. Know exactly where I am going to dig some roots!

    • BuildABetterMouse profile image

      Steve and Annette 5 years ago

      I grew up in Oregon which has a lot of edible plants - we were always eating something as we romped through the woods: berries, sour grass, etc. I've never tried cattails.

    • belinda342 profile image

      belinda342 5 years ago

      These grow like crazy where I work. I'll have to harvest a few and try them out. Thanks!

    • Countryluthier profile image

      E L Seaton 5 years ago from Virginia

      I love the idea of a cattail omlette! Goooood stuff!

    • ItayaLightbourne profile image

      Itaya Lightbourne 5 years ago from Topeka, KS

      Another awesome article sharing food grown in the wild that can be eaten! I had no idea cattail roots could be eaten. Well done article. :)

    • CNelson01 profile image

      Chuck Nelson 5 years ago from California

      I grew up on a ranch with a river and lots of cattails. I had heard you could eat them but never knew how until now. Very interesting.

    • MelonyVaughan profile image

      MelonyVaughan 5 years ago

      I always enjoy reading your lenses. You are very knowledgeable and you literally make my mouth water with excellent descriptions of how these plants taste and how to cook them! =)

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      I like to hike and my best friend and I would like to plan another trip together, taking as little with us as possible. So checking out info on food to get in the wild. Great lens. Thanks for the info. This would make a good ingredient for stone soup.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 5 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      We don't have cattail plants to get the cattail roots in Australia but you've made me determined to find something similar. We must have wild edible roots! It's a matter of national pride now

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      Thailandinfo 5 years ago

      I would have never guessed to eat that, thanks for the education.

    • Einar A profile image
      Author

      Einar A 5 years ago

      @DebMartin: That sounds so good! They really do taste like potatoes when cooked up that way, though a bit more fibrous. In most preparation methods--boiling and scraping, collecting the starch for flour--the fibers are removed, but by slicing them thinly before frying, they can be left in and eaten.

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      DebMartin 5 years ago

      I really must try this. So many cattails around here. I saw in one of your other lenses that you sometimes fry the roots like one would potatoes. I want to try that with a fresh-caught fish!

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      anonymous 5 years ago

      Fascinating once again and I sure appreciate your warning to folks to only gather cattail roots from areas that are not polluted because they do absorb the pollutants so readily.

    • bjslapidary profile image

      bjslapidary 5 years ago

      I've always known that the cattail is a useful plant, but have never tried it. I like how you show how to harvest the roots. Always wondered about how this was done. Thanks for sharing.

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      julieannbrady 5 years ago

      I had literally no idea that cattail roots looked like that and that you could eat them! Pretty amazing stuff.

    • dwnovacek profile image

      dwnovacek 5 years ago

      Beautifully presented and so informational! Angel Blessed!

    • mariaamoroso profile image

      irenemaria 5 years ago from Sweden

      I would love to try this root! Have not heard about it before. Thanks

    • hysongdesigns profile image

      hysongdesigns 5 years ago

      I've always known you could eat them but hadn't tried doing it yet. Thanks for such great detailed info on how to eat Cattail roots!

    • flicker lm profile image

      flicker lm 5 years ago

      The only cattails I have on my property are right near the road, so haven't tried eating any due to the pollution from the cars. I have used the fluff for tinder.