Guest Blog: Guide to foraging on the wild side - part 2
These two are far more intuitive and far less surprising than what we have in store for you today.
In “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” Euell Gibbons puts it just right by naming the chapter about this plant “Supermarket of the Swamps”.
We’ll be talking about the abundant gift from Nature that is Cattail.
We get more excited reading about the miraculous properties of herbs that grow deep in the Amazon forests or in the wilderness of Africa than common plants that are all around us. While the hype about the Amazon and some of the exotic edibles is legitimate, some of it just sounds better.
A gift that keeps on giving – Cattail
Let me start bold and say that I’d go as far to say that Cattail is the single most useful plant of the American wild. Overlooked and under-appreciated, it grows in every single state of the USA – from the Clallam and Whatcom County in the far North down to the Gold Coast of Florida.
Let’s dig in and see what’s so special about Cattail.
Four-season food, jack-of-all-trades utility and a medicinal wonder
The reason outdoorsmen are not excited about foraging articles is that once you start cutting out “chunks” of where a plant grows and what it's used for, you lose the attention of people that are either not close to the habitat or not interested in what a plant can do.
Some of us are interested in gathering.
Some are into utility plants.
Some are about preparedness and what a plant can do for them in a survival situation.
Cattail is all that and a bag of chips
Cattail is a member of the Gramineae grass family (along with wheat, rice, barley, oats…just to name a few).
There’s not much room for mistake here, we all know those tall grass-like leaves and the brown sausage-like head at the top.
It grows in wetlands and drainage canals, and this is the only limitation that comes to mind – if you are using cattail for food. Make sure you only use the “clean” plants that grow in unpolluted waters. Cattail that grows around drainages soaks up the toxins and is only to be used as a utility plant.
The leaves are blade-shaped, erect, with sharp edges sturdy enough to give you a “papercut.”
Cattail as food
The protein-packed pollen spikes
In early summer, the most giving part of Cattail is the unopened spike and the pollen it releases once it opens up.
As the plant is near its full height, it develops a spike. Know the difference between the main, big seed head (lower on the plant, atop the stalk) and the pollen packed spike at the very top of the plant – this is the one we’re looking for.
Before eating it, boil it for 10-12 minutes in salted water. Drain the water and you’ve got yourself a treat. Peel off the leafy part (if it’s still there) and enjoy it much like you would a corn on a cob.
The tenders of April
Come April, scan the swamps for edible shoots. They have an oval cross section, vivid green leaves and a white base resembling an onion.
The best time to enjoy these is when they reach about 1.5 feet in height. Once you spotted one, a firm grab and an upward pull should release the shoot with a distinctive popping sound.
The edible parts are the tenders. Collect a few dozen of these and boil them for about ten minutes. Once boiled, it’s pretty easy to tell the tender edibles from the fibrous parts that you couldn’t chew even if you tried.
The taste is sweet and mild with no odour.
The winter is coming
Come winter, look for last year’s dead cattail plants and dig up the horn-shaped rootstocks.
You’ll be surprised just how good these taste – a weird tantalizing mix between a potato and a cucumber is the best I can phrase it.
Dig these up and ALWAYS cook them thoroughly.
Never eat the rootstock raw, even if they are in the cleanest of waters. It’s common sense - it’s the only edible part of the plant that you are digging up from the ground.
What’s in Cattail?
As we speak, there are studies underway about the potential use of Cattail in cancer prevention. It’s the Chinese scientists that are blazing the trail for this whole new area of research with some exciting initial results.
We can’t make any claims here since the studies are “young” and there’s still no conclusive data. What we can do is look at some of the nutrients that cattail is abundant in.
Below is a table of nutrients in 15 oz Cattail shoots
The one thing missing from the table is how abundant Cattail is in vitamin K which is paramount for a number our bodily functions, especially sleep regulation.
Only 10 average shoots of it will give you about 45 mcg of the vitamin, which = 50% of Recommended Daily Allowance.
Cattail as an antiseptic, analgesic and a coagulant
The medicinal properties of cattail are perhaps the best known. They go back millennia in cultures all around the world, especially with the Cherokee.
They used it as decoction, a salve or tea. The decoction was used that purifies blood and has mild diuretic action, while the salves made of the leaves and the bark was applied to sores and scalds.
Tea made from the roots gave people suffering from arthritis a much-needed relief.
How to use it
Between the young leaves of the plant, you’ll find a jelly-like substance that you can simply apply to a wound or other areas that you want to clear pathogens from.
This jelly is also used as a powerful analgesic – either by applying it topically or ingesting it.
It’s not just the jelly that can slow down bleeding
Other parts like the root ground into a paste or at least softened down to a poultice and applied to the skin do as good a job as the jelly.
Its coagulant properties are so powerful that it’s not recommended to use it if you already have blood circulation problems.
A basket, a shelter and a sleeping mat
The leaves of the plant are just yielding enough to be crafted into baskets, shelter rooves and walls.
To do it, just cross the leaves together and make a flat surface. Then, fold the ends upwards and weave the edges to secure the structure.
The best part of it is that the freshly plucked leaves are easy to work and get creative with, but once moisture wicks out, the structure becomes much stronger.
This is what also makes Cattail a perfect material for crafting a roof for a shelter or a sleeping mat. The process is pretty much the same as making a Cattail basket – just cross-weave the leaves into surfaces big enough for your needs and use them as protection from the elements.
Crafting a sleeping mat
1. Cross cattail leaves until you have two areas big enough to make a sleeping mat. Secure the edge by weaving the leaves back into the crossed leaves.
2. Make two of these “mats” and connect them along one side, again using the leaves much like you would use a rope
3. Fill one mat with pine boughs and then fold over the other mat on top.
4. Fold over the other mat and use the leaves to make sure the pine bough stuffing is secure between the two mats
5. You’ve got yourself what’s probably the most comfortable mat you can craft out of commonly found plants
Fluffy fire starter
One part of the plant that we haven’t found use for so far is the white fluff of the ripe Cattail head. Well, let’s look at it now.
There’s probably no better tinder to start a fire than the cattail “fluff”.
The best part is that, if the head is not open, the fluff inside might still be dry even after rain. If that’s the situation, it’s probably the only natural tinder you can use. Just open the brown head and use the fluff inside.
Understanding the risks and doing the research
In underdeveloped areas of the world, Cattail is used to detoxify polluted water sources.
For a bushcrafter, this means two things:
1. Don’t use Cattail that grows in polluted water and drainages
2. Do your research about the area where you’re collecting your plants. The potential hazards you should look for plants in the immediate proximity of your Cattail-gathering area. A quick internet search for these possible hazards should do the trick and keep you safe.
Hew - this one was a dozy
If you got bored reading about all the ways you can use Cattail, let us just say that we tried to cherry-pick the most important uses.
The plant is so giving you can easily write a book about it and we packed the gist of it into 1,500 words.
That’s the best we could do.
Stay safe out there.
Authors of this guide on the benefits of cattail are Bob Ozment and James G.M., editors of TheSleepStudies.com – a website dedicated to all things sleep.
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About the writer
Bob Ozment is a New Yorker gone rogue. He holds the degree in Materials Science and Technology Engineering from the University of Turin, Italy and an interior design degree from the Metropolitan Institute in Syosset, but his only true passion is the Great Outdoors or as he likes to say it, “The Exterior design by Mother Nature.” When he’s not hiking the trails of the Northeastern, he writes about it. Bob is Molly’s father and Jackie’s husband.