The Useful Cattail by Brian in Pennsylvania

For those of you who are awake and aware of the fact that our current lifestyle is about to change in a big way, this information should appeal to you.  I would like to take the time to present some information that might not be known to everyone. This article is about the Cattail.  That humble plant that some people go to great lengths to rid themselves of.  That is foolish in the extreme in light of the coming collapse.  A person that had a pond with cattails growing thick around the perimeter, or access to one, should consider themselves extremely wealthy.  They can provide many things in all stages of their growth and are easily sustainable by replanting some of the seeds.  In fact, if there are suitable places for them to grow near you, bur you don’t see them there, you can take a seed head from another area and establish your own cattail garden.  Apart from the uses for the cattail itself, they provide great cover for ducks and geese.  (yum)   

They are found in most areas of North America, so finding them in non-desert, non-mountainous areas should be relatively easy.  There are multiple varieties.  If you look around, there are probably some growing nearby.  They are easy to identify, as no other plant produces that brown seed head that all cattails do.  There are similar looking plants that can grow in close proximity, but none have that seed head.  As a word of caution though, if you are not sure then don’t eat it.  Some of the broad leafed grasses that grow on the edges of ponds are poisonous.     

If ever there was a truly year round plant, it is the cattail.  You can obtain something from them in every season, even in winter if you can get through the ice to the roots.  In spring, once the shoots are above the water line, you can dig and collect the new shoots coming off the roots.  Peel, boil and eat.  A bit later, late spring/early summer, the pollen spikes form and are edible.  They can be boiled or eaten raw.  They get 8 – 10 inches long and taste somewhat like corn.  There are male and female parts, both are edible.  In summer, the male parts (on top of the seed head) will start to produce pollen.  This can be knocked off and used as flour, or mixed in to extend your flour storage.  In late summer to early fall, (and all the way back to spring), the time is right to get the most amount of food.  The roots can be dug up boiled, and eaten as such, or the starch can be extracted and used as flour.  The root is dug, washed and peeled, then they are broken up underwater either by hand or between clean stones to release the starch from the root fibers.  The excess water can be (carefully) poured off and the remainder dried out leaving flour.  Cattail flour contains gluten so it will hold together well in pancakes, cornbread, etc.  I have read that per acre, there can be as much as 10 times the starches than potatoes.  It might not taste like a potato, but if it gets bad enough that we are trying to get through hard times with nothing but wild edibles, that number is important.     

That is pretty brief, but that is for a reason.  I really want to discuss all the other uses for cattails that don’t relate to food.  A lot of the food information has been covered already.  One is only limited by their own imagination when it comes to finding uses for the plant other than food.  The leaves can be broken down for cordage, or woven to make mats, hats, seats, thatching, wall material or anything else that broad leaf grass can be used for.  Like I said, use your imagination.  The stalks can substitute for arrow shafts if not too dry.  Primitive but useful when all of your other arrows have already been used, bent, or broken.  Not for compound bows though, as the poundage is too high and the stalks can shatter.  But, with a recurve bow or bundle bow, they work very well.  I would hate to think that I would be reduced to using such means to survive, but strings break.  Arrows bend and break as well, depending on the type. Finding naturally straight replacements is a huge bonus.  They require minimal processing to make arrows out of and all you need to do is cut the seed head low and take the whole thing home.  

The mature seed head is both edible and useful too, maybe the most of all.  The fluff can be used for stuffing pillows, mattresses, etc.  It has excellent insulation properties as well, think of it as the natural version of fiberglass.  But, the greatest utility from the seed head in my opinion is for making fire.   

The fluff can be used as-is for tinder and it works well, but charring the fluff makes it exponentially  better.  Making char cattail is extremely easy and the finished product will take a spark as well as anything I have tried in nature.  Yes, there are things in the commercial world that do a better job, but given a long enough timeline, they will not be around.  This information is for when things like that have already run out, and you still need to make fire.  I can imagine that fire will become one of the highest priorities in the more northern climates and once the matches have run out, this could really come in handy.  Like I said, charring cattail is easy.  Just collect some seed heads once they have dried out and take the seeds off of the spike.  It will be surprising to most people when they do this for the first time.  There are a lot of seeds in that seed head packed very tightly.  It is best to do this outside, but not on a windy day.  Place the seed head in a bag and break the seeds off of the center spike.  Take the fluff and pack it tightly into a small metal container that you can put in a fire, like an altoids tin or shoe polish tin.  You will get 2-3 tins full of fluff from each seed head.  If the lid does not snap closed, you can wrap a wire around the whole thing to keep it shut during the charring process.  If it pops open during the process, you will probably have to start over.  It is best when there are few leaks to allow air (oxygen) into the container when charring.  Once packed into the tin, make a small hole (tack sized) in the top of the tin and then place it on the coals of a fire.  You have to allow the gasses to escape while limiting the amount of oxygen getting in.  We are basically trying to burn the fluff without the presence of oxygen.  If you read the “how to” on making charcoal, the process is very similar but happens in minutes not hours.  Watch the hole as the tin heats up, smoke will start to exit.  Once the smoke has stopped coming out, you need to time it for 1-2 minutes before it is done.  There is a feel to it that you will get the hang of after a few batches.  Once it has charred, remove it from the fire but do not open the container.  Place it on the ground with the hole side down.  You need to leave it alone for it to cool before opening so that the influx of oxygen does not let it burn completely.  I have made this mistake and it will turn to ash pretty fast.  What you end up with is a tightly packed pad of excellent fire starting material.  Virtually any spark you can get on this stuff will take and allow you to add oxygen to get a coal hot enough to ignite tinder.  Once the matches have run out, this will be the next best thing.     

I have no idea how bad things will get.  I have no idea how long things will be bad.  I only know that every bone in my body is telling me that whatever it is, it’s coming, and coming sooner rather than later.  I hope that all that come here appreciate that and are taking the necessary steps to protect themselves and their families.  The time is now to have plans in place to survive, no matter what happens. Having this knowledge in your toolkit could make a big difference to even those that already have deep larders.  Everything will run out eventually.  If things go on for a decade, most everyone left will be eating out, so to speak. 

About the Author:   I live in Northwestern Pennsylvania and have been awake to the possibility of a collapse for only a few years.  15 years ago I was already an avid hunter and outdoorsman and even went on a few outdoor survival trips (by choice), back in college.  This was long before Les Stroud was doing it on television.  I have been interested in and doing research on wild edibles and survival techniques for as long as I can remember as an adult.  I don’t claim to be an expert on either subject, but I do know enough that I thought I might do some good in sharing.  God bless you all.             

Reference:  The incredible cattail: The super Wal-Mart of the swamp, by Kevin F. Duffy, Backwoods Home Magazine