The nine lives of cattails

Common cattails. Photo: Bogdan, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Common cattails. Photo: Bogdan, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

The two cats at my place have survived many life-threatening traumas such as falls, fights, and even the compulsory “devotions” of small children. The hazards they can evade are amazing. I think if pets could drive, only dogs would get speeding tickets — cats would always find ways to wriggle out of a citation. Sadly, my contacts in the veterinary field continue to assert that cats have but a single life, and that the whole nine-lives thing is just a cat tale.

However, the story about cattails having (at least) nine lives is no yarn. An obligate wetland plant, the common cattail (Typha latifolia) is native to the Americas as well as to Europe, Africa and most of Asia — basically the planet minus Australia, all Pacific Islands and most Polar regions. Cattails can be found growing along wetland margins and into water up to 30 inches deep, from hot climates to Canada’s Yukon Territory.

Its name comes from the brown puffy seed head it produces which resembles, um, well really a corn dog. But to avoid an epidemic of incessant laughter, botanists went with cattail.

Aptly named or not, the cattail is truly a wonder of nature. As someone who likes to eat more than three meals a day, it makes sense that I first got acquainted with the culinary uses of cattails. The young shoots, sometimes called Cossack asparagus, are delicious raw or cooked. Definitely opt for cooking them if you’re unsure of the water purity.

The thick rhizomes (tuber-like roots) are about 80 percent carbohydrates and between 3 percent and 8 percent protein; better than some cultivated crops. Rhizomes can be baked, boiled, or dried and ground into flour. In his book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, Euell Gibbons detailed how to process roots with water to extract starch, which I’d have to say works nicely. The starch, wet or powdered, is added to flour to enhance the nutrient value of foods like biscuits and pancakes.

What I like best are the flower spikes, which are two-tiered affairs with the male (staminate) pollen-bearing spikes on top and the thicker female (pistillate) heads below. The male flower spikes wither away after they do their thing, but the female spikes mature into the corn dogs — I mean cats’ tails — we all recognize. Both spikes are edible, but must be gathered just as they break out of their papery sheaths. Boil and eat with butter as you would corn on the cob. They taste just like chicken. Kidding — they are similar to corn.

In the fall you can gather the tails and burn off the fluff to harvest the edible, oil-rich seeds. (Confession: due to my undiagnosed Laziness Syndrome I haven’t yet tried this.)

For years, my daughter and I sally forth (not her real name) in mid- to late- June and gather bright yellow cattail pollen. Just slip a plastic bag over the flower head, shake a few times and you’re done. An acre of cattails can yield over three tons of cattail pollen, and at 6 to 7 percent protein, that’s a lot of nutritious flour. Substitute cattail pollen for up to one-fourth of the flour in any recipe. You can use more, but experiment on a small scale before you serve it to others (a tip from my kids).

OK, so that’s what, five lives? Euell Gibbons called cattail the supermarket of the swamp, and he wasn’t kidding. You can find thousands of articles and research papers on the uses of cattails. Technically that might not get us to nine lives yet, so let’s name some names.

Native peoples around the world (except as noted) wove cattail leaves and flower stalks into roof thatch, sleeping mats, duck decoys, hats, dolls and other kids’ toys, to name but a few additional uses. Fresh leaves and roots were pounded and used as poultices on boils. Cattail fluff was used as diaper linings, moccasin insulation, and wound dressings.

Today cattail swamps are created by engineers to treat wastewater and artisans make paper from cattail leaves. And kids still have fun playing with the leaves and especially the mature cats’ tails. Here’s to the many lives of the cattail. But, let’s try and change its name to the corn-dog tail. The world could use the extra laughter.

Paul Hetzler is a horticulture and natural resources educator with Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County.

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