The cattail is a very well-recognized plant. It can be identified by its tall, firm stalks, which are tipped with an interesting flower structure composed of a dense spike. The leaves are somewhat sword shaped, and the bases of the leaves are often submerged. When the flowers fall off they leave a dark brown spike.
The cattail grows in marshy places and, like the bulrush, is a source of food all year round.
In the Bush
As a Cooked Vegetable: The inner stalks, after they are cleaned, are excellent in stews or boiled in salted water. The roots are edible cooked or roasted after they have been scraped, cleaned, and sliced.
As a Gruel: Scrape and clean the roots. Cut into small pieces, remove the fibers, add a little water, and boil into a thick gruel.
As Meal: Dry the root thoroughly, skin, remove fibers, and pound into a meal. The pollen of the plant is also edible. It is delicious eaten either raw or ground into flour. It resembles musty wheat in flavor and can be used to make bread or cakes, or to thicken soups.
Steamed Cattail Roots: Pull up the root, clean, scrape, and remove root hairs. Wrap in large leaves. Dig a shallow pit with flat stones. Place over them a good bed of coals from your main fire and feed them with small branches to get the stones underneath as hot as possible. Scrape the coals out of the pit and replace them with wet, green grass. Place the cattail roots, wrapped in leaves, on the grass and cover with another layer of grass, then a layer of earth. Punch a hole in the pit down to food level and pour in a small quantity of water, then block up the hole with earth and leave undisturbed for at least an hour to let the steam cook the food.
Cattail Soup: For the lone traveler—or survivor—without cooking utensils, it seems impossible to make soup without a pot of some kind, but you can make an excellent pot out of birch bark. Form the birch bark into a funnel shape and put a stopper of clay or a stone sealed with clay in the hole at the bottom. If you remember to keep the water level higher than the surrounding coal bed, the birch bark will not burn.
As for the soup, fill the funnel three-quarters full of water and add some dark meat from a squirrel that has been properly skinned and cut up into small pieces. Simmer for half an hour, then add two handfuls of pollen from the cattail. Simmer for another half and hour and you will have a surprisingly tasty soup.
Cattail Bread: Collect pollen from the cattail by bending the stem over a pot or birch bark funnel. Hit the spike hard and the pollen will fall out. Grind the pollen between two flat stones into a fine flour. Mix the flour with a bit of porcupine fat and water and make balls of the mixture. Flatten the balls into cakes and griddle in a reflector oven made out of flat stones.
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