Typha is a popular plant with many names like bulrush, reed mace, punks, corndog grass, raudo, or cattail. Whatever you want to call it, cattail is easy to distinguish and locate and has many uses. You can use it at any time of the year.
In the summer, cattail looks like a tall hot dog on a stick. The hot-dog-looking thing is the female spike and sometimes will have the male spike above it. The male spike is made up of pollen that is edible and can be used to thicken soups or to mix with flour to make bread. There is hardly any starch in the roots at this time, so wait until fall to start harvesting the roots. Cattail have these sword-like leaves that sheathe the base. The leaves are very sturdy and can be woven into mats, the backs of chairs, or a basket, or a corn husk doll. The female spike, at this time can be dipped into wax and made into a candle. Also, it can be dipped in oil or animal fat and used as a torch.You’ll always see the old, dried-up stalks from last year as well. These can be used for hand drills or arrow shafts.
In the fall, the seeds of the female spike puff up and blow away to germinate in the rhizomes. You can use that puffy stuff for insulation in pillows or in blankets, also use it for tinder for a fire. There is a gel-like substance that you get when breaking off the leaves or the roots, and you can use that for tooth aches.
In the winter, all the life in the cattail goes down into the roots. So you’ll have starchy roots, but dried up, yellow stalks. The roots are edible, but require separating the starch from the fibers to make them edible. To get the starch, you just need to dry the roots and crush them or crush them in water. You can find some young shoots growing on the roots. They’re white and tender, kind of taste like cucumbers, and have a lot of nutrients in the them. They’re actually called Cossack’s asparagus; in Russia they’re a delicacy.
In early spring the cattail leaves will shoot up first and be the only thing visible. It can be easy to confuse it with some reeds like iris and daffodil. However, you’ll always be able to tell whether it’s cattail, because it will have the old stalks from last year. As it grows in the spring, the leaves will unravel the new shoot, and it’s easy to pull back the leaves and see the female and male spike, both green, small and still growing. They’ll be tender and you can eat them like corn on the cob raw or you can cook them.
Harvesting and Locating
To find cattail is really easy; it’s wherever there is water. Even if it looks like it’s dry, there is going to be water. Cattail can’t tolerate dryness and always needs a lot of water, which makes it easier to tell from poisonous look-a-likes. Some reeds can grow on dry land, but cattail can’t. So know that when you’re looking for it, it’s always going to be with water. When harvesting cattail, the more dry the soil, the easier the harvest. Also, it never hurts to test the water, in which you are getting your plant.
Jaesi Christian is an expert forager
Photo. Pioneerthinking.com, J. Durham, Earl53