Family: Typhaceae, the Cat-tail Family
Description: Native perennial herb up to 2.5m tall. Leaves long and lance-shaped, fuzzy brown flower/fruit spikes
Abundance: Occasional on Mt. Desert Island
Habitat: Marshes, shallow water, fresh water edges
Plant Parts Used: Rhizome, flowers, pollen, shoots
Food: Flour, cooked like asparagus, corn on the cob, and potatoes
Other: Basketry, fire-starting, ceremony
Cat-tails were reintroduced to the general public by Euell Gibbons in his 1962 book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Here is the first paragraph to his chapter on the common cat-tail, “Supermarket of the Swamps:”
For the number of different kinds of foods it produces there is no plant, wild or domesticated, which tops the common Cattail. In May and June the green bloom spikes make a superior cooked vegetable. Immediately following this comes the bright yellow pollen, fine as sifted flour, which is produced in great abundance. This makes an unusual and nourishing ingredient for some flavorful and beautifully colored pancakes and muffins. From fall until spring a fine, nutritious white flour can be prepared from the central core of the rootstocks for use as breadstuff or as a food starch. On the leading ends of these rootstocks are found the dormant sprouts which will be next year’s cattails. These can be eaten either as a salad or a cooked vegetable. At the junction of these sprouts and the rootstock there is an enlarged starchy core the size of a finger joint. These can be roasted, boiled or cooked with meat. In the spring, the young shoots can be yanked from the ground and peeled, leaving a tender white part from six to twelve inches long which can be eaten raw or cooked.
The uses of cat-tails are extensive—everyone I spoke to could not say enough about them. Ray knows cat-tails as a viable food source in the spring; he treats the shoots like asparagus and the young brown flower spikes like corn on the cob. Terry-Anya also eats this plant in the same way. John told me that every part of the plant is somehow useful. The rhizome, pollen, flowers, and shoots are edible. He knows native people who make flour out of tapping the protein-rich pollen into baskets made of cat-tail leaves. He also told me that some Native Americans use cattails in a ritual for girls entering puberty. Ray also said that cat-tails can make good hand drills for starting fires. However, cat-tails always grow in wetlands, which can be major sources of pollution, so it is important to know the quality of the region where the cat-tails are growing if being used for human consumption.
Caution: When harvesting cat-tails, one must always be aware of the health of the water in which the plants are growing. Cat-tails can absorb water pollutants and negatively affect the health of humans who consume them. Also, cat-tails grow in the same habitat as wild irises, which are toxic to humans, so care must be taken to ensure the correct plant is identified.
Note: This post is part of my Plants and People series. See my Plants and People page for more information about the project and the people referenced in this post.
- Brooks, John. Personal Interview. 28 Nov. 2010.
- Gibbons, Euell. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Chambersberg, PA: A.C. Hood & Co., 1962. Print.
- Hayes, Terry-Anya. Personal interview. 27 Oct. 2010.
- Michener, Martin C. Botany Everywhere: Woods, Field, Home, and Garden Plants of NE USA, Third Edition. Hollis, NH: MIST Software Associates, Inc., 2009. PDF.
- Mittelhauser, Glen H., Linda L. Gregory, Sally C. Rooney, and Jill E. Weber. The Plants of Acadia National Park. Orono, Me.: University of Maine, 2010. Print.
- Reitze, Raymond and Nancy. Personal interview. 8, 15 Oct. 2010.
- Turner, Nancy J., and Patrick Von Aderkas. The North American Guide to Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.