Eating Cattails: An Essential (and Tasty) Foraging Skill

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Cover Courtesy Paladin Press
“Eating on the Run” will equip you with a working knowledge of dozens of readily harvestable plants, grasses, nuts and berries that require little, if any, preparation. You will learn how to distinguish safe plants from toxic varieties, which parts of the plant are edible, and when and where you’re likely to find abundant supplies each season. Plus, the author shares delicious ways to enjoy the plants while on the move. 

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.

The tough, fibrous root is edible any time of year (best in late fall/winter). Thoroughly clean them and pound chunks in a container of water to separate the starch, which may be collected by filtering or letting it settle, or boiling it down. Reportedly, you can dry the roots and then mill them for flour, which I have not tried, but the starch water you simply pound out acts very much like corn starch when added as a gravy thickener.

There is probably no other pollen on the planet as easy to harvest by the pound as cattail, and there are so many tasty things to do with this fine, flour-like staple. The male part, the spike on top of the hotdog, has an incredible amount of pollen, which can be shaken off into a bag and used as flour, boiled for a porridge or gruel, or roasted and added to meatloaf. And it is very high in protein, as is most pollen.

Considered objectively, the cattail would be the king of wild plants, and not just because it’s one of the few grasses with a worthwhile root (actually a rhizome, an underground lateral stalk). Native Americans, for example, didn’t consider the cattail as a food of last resort. It was a go-to culinary staple for many dishes, including desserts. It grew so well naturally that they didn’t have to cultivate it.

Preserved Typha starch found on grinding stones in Paleolithic digs across Europe indicates that cattails were common staple tens of thousands of years ago and would seem to indicate they ground the rhizomes before leaching or roasting them. Cattails thrive all over Europe. I’ve never seen really big forsaken stands there, because the folks eat ’em up. The early-season corms and tender young stalks are peeled and boiled and called “Cossack asparagus.” They’re excellent with a hollandaise sauce at home; in the woods, you can just graze. Depending on the cleanliness of the water, you may want to only eat raw above the waterline.

The best beds of cattails I’ve seen, though, have been in North America, probably because few people since the Native Americans and frontiersmen have molested them. They could be an immense resource if we’d quit draining our wetlands. How immense? There is actually a Cattail Research Center at Syracuse University, which cited some stunning numbers: they could harvest some 140 tons of rhizomes per acre per year (about 10 times a decent potato crop), which would yield 32 tons of dry cattail flour. Compare those numbers with spuds or GMO corn!

Preparing Cattails for Camping Food

As kids in the Pacific Northwest, my best buddy Gilbert and I used to go “cattail camping.” The rules we evolved allowed us to carry only matches, salt, a poncho between us, jackknives, a #10 can to carry/cook in, a Red Ryder BB gun, and later a mail-order “Bowie” knife bought from an ad in Boy’s Life with strawberry-picking money.

Plus one 5-cent candy bar each to get us there, which was usually just a mile or two into the woods in back of the Johnsons’ farm.

Obviously, we ate a lot of crawdads and tweetie birds, plus the occasional poached fish–and cattails. Lots of cattails. Only once did we eat anything that gave us a bellyache (never knew just what it was, but 20 years later my hair started falling out, too). Cattails often ended up being the staple part of our groceries and a good part of our shelter. During fire season, we were vegans until Gib read an article about cooking with a tin-foil reflector. Nobody knew what sushi was then. But cattails are good raw, too, even just the pounded-out starch water if you’re genuinely hungry!

Keeping in mind that you can dry and keep cattail pollen and starch to use all year, let’s do a calendar-based recipe review of cattail cooking. It’s honestly haute cuisine when done right in a kitchen and tolerable victuals in the wild because it starts good, and by the time you have putzed with it under aboriginal conditions, odds are that you’ll have worked up an appetite. Cattail products may be too labor intensive for the supermarket, but what’s that got to do with a survivalist, yesterday or today?

For a root starch, cattails contain a fair amount of gluten, which is good news if you want to make flatbread or tortillas, or need it to hang together because you don’t have utensils. In the woods, we just washed and peeled the roots, cut them up, and pounded them with water in the can with a blunt stick until the starch washed out and then, best we could, strained out the fiber, let the good stuff settle, and poured off the water. You can also split the root and scrape out the starchy part, which is still fibrous, and wash the starch out of that. Depending on your setting, you can wash, cut up, and dry the roots; then pound them as fine as you can; put them in a cloth; and boil the starch out.

Our best recipe was to boil it down until it got about like porridge and then add pollen, if in season, until it got thick, about like biscuit dough. We’d put a wad of that on a forked stick and roast it in the fire like a marshmallow or stick biscuit, or we’d cook any consistency from batter on up on a hot rock. Once, we mashed in a lot of blackberries, and that was a pudding you wouldn’t have to apologize for, anywhere. In even a frontier kitchen, of course, you would have all kinds of options for preparing and cooking. The starch can be quite sweet, but different varieties of cattail, in different growing conditions, will vary in flavor and quantity. Best starch collecting is in late fall and winter, when it’s stored in the rhizome.

Some people think it tastes like mashed potatoes if seasoned the same; some think it tastes like poi. Peeled and the inner core thinly sliced, tender shoots can be fried and taste like new potatoes to some palates. As with most bland-flavored starchy foods, adding seasoning of choice can really help.

Last year’s seeds are also edible once you burn the fluff, but they’re so small I never have seriously bothered. I’ve also read that East Coast Indian cooks mashed and boiled the roots and then boiled the juice down to a thick syrup, but I never tried that either.

Cattail Recipes for Spring and Summer

With spring, you can pretend you are the legendary panda who walks into a bar, eats shoots, and leaves. The pointed little corms that sprout up from the rhizome can be broken off and, if the water is clean, eaten on the spot. Some folks think they taste like cucumbers or zucchini. Once these corms grow into an upward shoot, that shoot can be peeled and eaten raw. The easiest way to harvest shoots once they break water is to grab the stalk like it was a grass stem you wanted to chew on and pull straight up. The crisp, white lower part is what you want, just like on any other grass stem. On the upper portion of a shoot, peel away the outer layers until you get to the crisp and tender inner parts; then just pretend it is asparagus. Boil or sauté it, can it, or pickle it, just like you would asparagus. Generations of Cossacks can’t be wrong. Raw, some folks think this part tastes like mild celery.

Usually around the end of June, you can get tender inner stalks, immature “corncob” flowers, and pollen all at the same time from different plants in the same stand. Peel the leaves away from the developing flower spike, boil, and eat like very small corn on the cob. It may be the power of suggestion, but they tend to taste a little like corn. The male shoots at the very top, which produce pollen, can also be boiled and the soft parts eaten early on, before the larger female parts really have started to form. In short, any tender part can be eaten raw or cooked, any time you can get it. Think salads, stir-fries and casseroles.

Eating Cattail Shoots

You can peel and eat the shoots well into the summer: pick the largest shoots that haven’t begun to flower and pull straight up. Peel and toss all outside layers that are not tender. The ratio of food to fiber varies with the size of the shoot: for efficiency, go for the biggest ones that are still tender.

By the end of June in most areas, seed heads will mature and pollen will come. It’s the most worthwhile pollen I’ve found that doesn’t have to be harvested by bees. Just bend the top over into a paper bag, hold the bag closed, and shake. In a good stand, if the wind has not robbed it, you can get pounds per hour. It’s yellow and very fine like flour–I’d guess about 100 mesh or finer–so it doesn’t have to be milled before using it to upgrade or extend flour. It’s quick and easy protein for a knight errant or other woods traveler, with a nutty/corny/buckwheaty flavor to it. Like the starch, it’s a good component or extender for all kinds of recipes from mush to meatloaf, from soup to cinnamon rolls, from casseroles to cornmeal pudding. It gives a yellow cast if mixed with wheat flour for attractive cookies and muffins. Both pollen and starch work well with other ingredients, and although the starch may be sweet, it’s available and extractible year ’round, any time you need carbs.

Once you and your consort start using it around your cabin, you’ll find yourself substituting this pollen for flour in all kinds of breads, biscuits, cakes, and cookies–just like our frontier forebears.

And another thing: on the frontier, when the rib sent you out for venison or a mess of fish, even if you got skunked, you never had to return without something for the pot if you had cattails!

Cattail Pollen Pancakes Recipe

If you like buckwheat cakes, you’ll kill for these:

1 cup flour
1 cup cattail pollen
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups of milk
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup oil

Mix dry ingredients in bowl. Add eggs, oil, honey, and milk, and mix well. If the batter is too thick, add a little water. Cook on lightly greased griddle that will dance a drop of water. You did make maple or birch syrup this winter, didn’t ya?

Other Utility in Survival Foraging

One caution: some people are allergic to the fluff on cattails. It can trigger asthma or cause skin rashes on contact, much like wool does to some folks. Fluff, subject to individual allergies, is an excellent insulator for clothing and quilts, and was used for futons in Asia prior to cotton. Ground raw or macerated, the root pulp makes a poultice, much the same as a potato or onion poultice, for cuts, burns, stings and bruises. Dried tops can be used as a punk to carry fire or fluffed for the best tinder we’ve ever found to catch a spark. Dried flower heads dipped in fat make great torches. Cut green, dried, and resoaked, cattail leaves make baskets and mats (some were found in Nevada that were more than 10,000 years old), hats, ponchos, or thatch. Dried stalks serve for myriad light dowel purposes.

How to Identify Cattails

Some plants with the same wet venue bear a superficial resemblance to cattails, and some are either inedible or downright toxic members of the iris family, for instance. But positive identification is simple: if it doesn’t have a cattail at the top, then it’s not a cattail! Even in a hard winter in the Rocky Mountains, there will be the dead-standing round stalks, usually with tattered, fuzzy remnants of the cattail at the top to guide you. Follow only these stalks into the mud to find the rhizome it grows from. If there are remnants of a seedpod, then it’s not cattail and likely iris–which means it is toxic. Since plants that look similar to the untrained eye can grow side by side, if your hand can’t follow the obvious cattail stalk to the rhizome, then move on.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Eating on the Run by Fred Demara, published by Paladin Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Eating on the Run.