Eating Cattails: An Essential (and Tasty) Foraging Skill

Edible plants like Typha latifolia make for great survival food as well as an everyday staple.

| November 12, 2012

You may have a well-stocked survival pantry but don’t overlook the value of foraging knowledge. Fred Demara has put together a guide to North American wild plants that are great as survival food — plus some, like cattails, that are recommended for year-round consumption. Demara’s book Eating on the Run (Paladin Press, 2012) gives practical advice on these plants including identification, preparation methods and descriptions of taste. The following excerpt is on cattails, what Demara describes as "the found-everywhere, used-for-everything gourmet surivival provision." 

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Cattail is one of my favorite survival foods. It has been a staple of both Native American and rural European diets since prehistoric times. It’s a favorite of mine for survival because it is found literally all over the world, virtually every part of the plant is edible at some time, and at least one part is edible at any given time of year that you find it—plus it’s useful for shelter and other purposes. It is a good example of a food that is all around you. It’s a virtual shmoo plant: the common cattail. It’s not just for decorating autumn barn dances anymore—it’s what’s for dinner. If the only thing you take to heart from this book is that cattails will feed you, it could save your life. The cattail is a survival gimme. Typha latifolia, the common cattail, or one of its varieties, will be found all over the Northern Hemisphere. There is everything to like about this plant: it’s all edible (and tasty!), easy to identify, and easy to harvest. This makes it both a fine staple and an excellent survival food.

If I had to choose between surviving for a spell, barehanded, near a pond with catfish or one with cattails, I’d probably opt for the cattails, and not just because they are easier to catch with your hands. Sure, catfish are tasty and nutritious, but they’re only one kind of food; cattails provide many kinds of meals—also tasty and nutritious— plus you can lay up a supply for winter or for travel. They provide medicine, clothing, and shelter to boot. One of the greatest points in their favor is that you may find them anywhere in moist soil or standing water . . . yes, even around a good catfish pond.

Some dozen species of this grass (despite its looks, it’s a grass, but then so is bamboo) grow just about universally in the Northern Hemisphere and Australia, the most common and largest being Typha latifolia.

All perennials, they spread out in favorable habitats, creating an incredibly dense food resource because virtually every part of the plant is edible. And not just “edible” as in goat fodder that only Euell Gibbons could love, but tasty and very nutritious fare, from the buckwheat-like, high-protein pollen at the top to the vitamin-rich shoots, stalks, and young flowers in the middle to the starchy, high-carbohydrate rhizome network in the soil. Some part is edible at every time of year, and it’s always relatively easy to harvest, even barehanded. In spring, the first young shoots (corms) are tasty raw or cooked. As the shoots grow up, they are peeled and used like asparagus. Later, the female part of the flower (looks like a hotdog at the end of the stalk) may be boiled when immature and eaten like miniature corn on the cob.

3/18/2014 7:31:20 PM

Not many books talk about foraging wild grasses. I haven't read the book, but it sounds like the author might have content many others lack.

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