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Free Food: Cattails

Updated on February 14, 2014

Also Known As Punks or Bullrush

I have heard it said that if you are lost in the wilderness and find a stand of cattails, you have hit the jackpot! Cattails can provide you with not only food, but also with fuel, because you can burn the dried, old growth from the year before. You can use the long, strong stalks to fix yourself a makeshift shelter, There will automatically be water there, since cattails are a wetland plant. And of course, they are food. Plus they can be harvested year round!

As odd as it may seem, cattails are edible wild plants, from top to bottom. In fact, cattails were a regular food in the diets of many Native Americans. You can find them growing at the edge of many fresh water sources, and enjoy them either raw or cooked.

Different parts of the cattail are eaten in different ways. Let's start from the bottom up.

The roots or the rhizomes of cattail plants, are a great food! Since they are very starchy, they make good flour. They may be a little bit fussy to harvest though. First you have to get your feet and hands wet, and probably muddy, to get them. They won't just jump up out of their bed for you either. You will have to work a little bit to get them. Run your hand down the stalk of the cattail, and feel around in the mud for the rhizomes. Squish and dig around until you feel an offshoot on one side or the other. Loosen the offshoot. Then move around to the other side of the plant and do the same thing. After you have the offshoots loose, PULL! You will have the rhizomes out. The stalk, and the flower spike will be used to, so don't discard any part of the plant at this time.

The rhizomes will, naturally, have to be washed to remove all the mud. Since they grow at the edge of water, you can rinse the mud off where they grow, and finish cleaning them thoroughly at home, or at your campsite.

Small little corms will likely be available near the base of the stalk, at the top of the rhizomes. They are what would develop into the next years new growth of rhizomes, and are also edible.

Cattail Rhizomes
Cattail Rhizomes

Making Flour

After you have brought your cattails back to where you will prepare them, cut the rhizomes off the stalk, and wash them good. They may still look "dirty", but that's okay, because you will peel them. Remove the corms at this time, and set them aside for later. Or if you're hungry, or just have a hankering, go ahead and peel and cook the corms in a little butter or olive oil until tender, and have a snack.

Peel the rhizomes. A vegetable peeler works great, but a parring knife, or other sharp knife works too.

Next you need to remove the starch from the rhizome. Use a sharp knife and scrape the rhizome, from the bottom up. This makes the starch collect on the knife blade, where you can easily remove it. Stir the collected starch, and little fibrous "threads" into a bowl or pan of fresh, clean water. Let it all set for 2 or 3 hours. Then pour off the water and the "floaters". Left in the bottom of the bowl or pan will be the cattail starch. Lay it out in a thin layer on a cookie sheet, or something similar, to air dry. Or you can dry it in the oven at a low temperature. This is the flour, and looks sort of like white cornmeal.

You can use this flour like any other baking ingredient, or in combination with wheat, barley, or rye flour, or with cornmeal. Since it has no leveling properties in it, you will need baking powder, or yeast to make "light" breads or other foods that rise. It can be used as is for flat bread. Or you can use it as a thickening agent in stews and so on, like you would use cornstarch or wheat flour.

Cattail Flour
Cattail Flour

Cattail Stalks

The part of the stalk you will want to eat is the lower, white colored part. Just clean it good, chop it up and cook it any way you like it. You may want to add this to soups, stews, or stir-fry. Or you may want to boil or steam it and add a little butter and salt. It's up to you. You can also eat them raw. This part of the plant is full of vitamins and minerals. A very healthy food!

Cattail Stalks
Cattail Stalks

Cattail Flower Spikes

After you have cut away the stalk, you may think you should throw away the flower spike, but DON'T! You can eat it too!

In early summer, while the female flower spikes are green, before they turn brown and start to go fluffy, you can eat them like corn on the cob. They even taste a bit like corn on the cob. The inside of the "cob" is sort of wiry, so don't eat that part, just like you wouldn't eat a corn cob. Or you can scrape the little grainy "nibblets" off and mixed them in with eggs for a nice tasty scramble. Use your imagination with casseroles, pasta toppings, or side dishes.


Cattail Pollen

Yes the cattail pollen is also edible! The pollen is the male part of the flower spike, and forms on the top of the spike after it turns brown. It's yellow and looks shiny. If you find a good stand of cattails, and don't harvest all the flower spikes before they mature, you should be able to collect a nice amount of pollen.

Place a paper, or plastic bag over the flower spike, holding the bag tightly enough so you don't loose the pollen, bend the stalk over, then SHAKE it! You will find that cattails produce a lot of pollen. It doesn't take long to harvest a pound of pollen from a good stand of cattails.

Use the pollen like flour. But mix it with other flour, instead of using it alone. You can stretch it as far as 30 to 50 percent of the flour used for cookies, cakes, bread, or other baked goods. It adds a very pleasing flavor to griddle cakes, muffins, or other baked goods. Not to mention a pretty yellow color!

Cattail Pollen
Cattail Pollen

What A Wonderful Plant

Yes the cattail is a very vestal wild, native plant. It can be used in many ways, and during all stages of it's life cycle.

I hope you will enjoy this wild free food in your diet. And as always, happy harvesting!


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