By Rita Bober
If you live on or near a lake, you may be familiar with cattails. They are one of North America's best known native plants. Cattails grow on wet ground at or near the water table. They grow from 5-9 feet tall with all the leaves standing very erect. The leaves are long and sword-like. The plant has inconspicuous flowers and later the hot dog like seed heads which last through the winter. I recently attended a workshop on cattails and learned a significant amount of new information about them.
Did you know that the Miami People used cattail leaves to cover their homes and the cattail stems (center core) were used for doors and room dividers? In the workshop, we practiced making each of these and realized what a job it was to transform cattails to these workable products. We also learned to make cordage with the leaves. Cordage is long, slender, flexible material usually consisting of several strands (as of thread or yarn) woven or twisted together similar to rope. In the natural world, cordage can be made from various plant materials such as cattails leaves, stinging nettle, dogbane, milkweed stems, as well as the inner bark of basswood and cedar. This long cord is very strong and can be used for numerous purposes especially for tying things together; wherever you would use thread, twine, or rope. Fluff from the seed heads was used as baby diapers. The mature cattail heads can also be used as insulation materials for mittens, blankets, and clothing.
Besides all the uses described above, cattails also have a number of edible qualities. In the spring, the leaf hearts or shoot cores can be collected from the time the cattail buds begin to grow until about the middle of summer before the flower stalks are formed. I have tried these stir-fried in butter as well as pickled. They were pretty mild tasting but enjoyable. I learned that the spikes form in the early part of summer make a decent vegetable (only the top (male) section is used). You can eat them raw or boiled. They have a taste like corn-on-the-cob and mushroom.
If you leave the spikes alone, they soon develop pollen. The pollen can be collected and used to make muffins, breads, and other baked goods (but it must be mixed with wheat flour because it is not sticky by itself). Make sure to shake it through cheesecloth or a screen to sift out insects and wooly fibers, and dry before storing for future use. Cattail flour can be made from the rhizomes. This involves a labor-intensive process which won't be described here. Combined with other flours, it can be used in pancakes, tortillas, etc.
This plant is also food and shelter to many animals. Muskrats think the early spring shoots are good food. If you are investigating a cattail marsh, you may see snapping turtles lurking in the muddy shallows, mallards raising their young or a great blue heron looking for anything small enough to swallow. Perhaps you might even see frogs and snakes.
If you have cattail plants growing in your pond or in a nearby lake, be sure to take note and begin exploring this outstanding plant that has many uses and is a valuable edible wild food source.
Edited article originally published in the September 2012 issue of the Lawton Free Reader.