In Chippewa, apuk’we, perhaps meaning “shelter” (muskrat is supporting me on this idea), common cat-tail is the multi-tool of the woods. Its uses reach far beyond the edible and medicinal.
Sometimes cat-tails are mistakenly called bulrush, but that’s a separate species entirely here, yet they seem to use these terms interchangeably in Great Britain. There is also a narrow-leaved cat-tail (typha angustifolia) in our area and they often hybridize. The rhizomes are narrower too. Fortunately, their edible uses are the same.
Edible Uses of Common Cat-Tail
As a plant that purifies the waters, you’ll want to find cat-tails in a fresh, clean watershed if you wish to use them for sustenance. Both for safety and flavor reasons. Stagnant or polluted waters aside, also be familiar with the various “flag” plants, such as sweet flag, since it’s possible to confuse the two at certain stages of growth.
Cattails are a highly versatile food source. Cue the bullet list of edible parts, that I’ve ordered seasonally:
- Buds – harvest early spring. These are the sprouts at the ends of cat-tail roots and they can be eaten raw or cooked. Later in the year, these buds start to appear atop the roots or at the base of the leaves making them more or less a year-round harvestable.
- Shoot cores sometimes referred to as “Cossack asparagus” – harvest in spring. These are leafy stalks below the water, and you’ll have to peel away the tough layers to get to the core. They are used like celery, or asparagus even. For some people, it could be irritating if eaten raw.
- Spikes – harvest early summer. Pick the spikes when they’re still in green leafy sheaths and before the pollen ripens above them. Remove the sheaths and boil the spikes. It’s similar to eating corn on the cob.
- Lateral shoots – late summer to early fall. These come straight off the rhizome.
- Protein-rich floury pollen – late in the season. Shake and rub off the ripe pollen to use in place of a fraction of the flour in recipes.
- Starchy fibrous rhizome, ground into flour – from fall to early spring. Dig up the roots, and process them by peeling and crushing, and straining out the fibers. The goal is to get the starch that will settle to the bottom of the water. Wash the starch several times. There are several methods to this, worth looking into if you want to do the work involved. The starch is dried and used the same way as the pollen.
Roots High in Carbs
Medicinal Uses of Common Cat-Tail
Common cat-tail is primarily said to support these body systems:
Medicinal tags include Antiseptic and Astringent. See Medicinal tag key for more information.
Common usage includes the roots being crushed into a pulp and mixed with black bear lard as a salve for burns.
Alternative Uses of “Wild Corn Dogs”
The shoots are used to make woven mats and rugs, cushions for chairs and baskets.
The dried rhizomes can be used for kindling.
Remember how George Washington Carver came up with over 300 uses for peanuts? Cat-tail is kind of like peanuts.
I have a wee frog pond with blue flag, arrowheads, and marsh marigold – all thriving. But the pond is full, so I’m digging out a larger pond. One of the primary motivations for this is that I want to try to grow a whole colony of cat-tail. I hope to install a pond pump and fingers crossed it doesn’t stagnate. Getting the cat-tails established should be relatively easy – cat-tails grow best from divisions. But note that narrow leaved cattail is actually introduced. So it’s probably best to look for broadleaf, although they are close enough they hybridize.
And the Usual Cautions:
1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation.
2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk.
3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored. Herbalists do not have an official certification yet, but that may be in the works.
4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.
5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.
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Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants