Common Name: Cattail, Bulrush, Reedmace, Punk, Corn-dog Grass, Flags, Cossack asparagus, Roseau des étangs (French), Piriope (Spanish), камыш (Russian – pronounced kamish) – The unmistakable elongated brown seed tufts of the plant stand out against the broad green leaves like the tail of a brown cat walking along the perimeter of a fen.
Scientific Name: Typha latifolia – The genus is from the Greek Typha (τυφοζ), the name given the marsh plant we know as cattail, also called the plant used as stuffing for beds. The species name is from the Latin latus, meaning ‘wide’ or ‘broad’ and folium meaning ‘leaf’ to indicate the broad, sword-like leaves that project from the base.
Potpourri: Cattails are native on a global scale inclusive of every continent except Australia and Antarctica, an indication of a likely provenance in the Pangaean primordial age. Their ubiquity is a matter of observation; they are among the most recognized of all plants. Through a combination of a tenacious grip on otherwise marginal boggy wetlands and a robust reproduction capacity, they have evolved to dominate many paludal and some riparian areas at elevations that range from sea level upwards of 7,000 feet. Were it not for their aesthetic grace, they would surely be counted among the most pernicious of weeds, and in places like Hawaii where they have been introduced, they are. On the contrary, cattails are frequently used in dried flower arrangements to emulate the quiet grace of a mountain tarn. They are also good to eat.
The germination and reproduction potential of the cattail can best be appreciated by noting that the six-inch long, brown tumescence that is its key characteristic feature is in reality a densely packed structure of fertilized flowers each with a single seeded achene fruit attached to a long, slender hair for wind transport. The number of seeds range from 117,000 to 268,000 for a single plant which are, according to the Invasive Species Specialist Group, 95 percent viable. One of the primary reasons for cattail fecundity is that they are monoecious, each plant has both male flowers that produce pollen and the female flowers that they fertilize. The male flowers, which number in the hundreds, are located in the staminate spike directly above the female flowers that form the sausage-shaped seed cluster; they are separated by less than an inch.
While the combined wind and water distribution of its copious seeds would in and of itself offer a prodigious reproduction capacity, this is not the primary method that cattails spread. Prominent large root-like branches called rhizomes extend from the bottom of each cattail that spread horizontally to create a cloned plant adjacent to the original, a process called vegetative growth. A single cattail can extend to over 50 square meters in the two years following germination with a total rhizome length of almost 500 meters. The result is a plexus of shallow fibrous roots that attach to the larger rhizomes to form an impenetrable barrier solidly anchoring the cloned colony to the muddy bottom. The prevalence of vegetative growth over germination has been validated; over a 3 year period a single stand of cattails continued with vigorous clonal growth without a single germinated seed.
The extensive use of cattail as a source for food, fabric, and pharmacy is a matter of historical record – a swamp smorgasbord nonpareil. Encyclopedia Britannica provides that cattails “have been called the most useful of all wild plants as sources for emergency food.” There was likely usage of the cattail in ancient Eurasia; an analysis of tools used for hand milling in the Mugello Valley of Italy about 30,000 years ago was found to contain evidence of cattail residues. However, there is a dearth of any information about their widespread use in the more recent millennia of recorded history. Certainly other paludal plants were used: the papyrus of the Egyptians is from a sedge family plant and Moses was hidden in the bulrushes according to Exodus. However, like the papyrus, Western civilization moved on from cattails to new foods and materials in the ensuing years – when history was recorded.
This is not the case in the New World, where Native Americans of almost every tribal group used the cattail in some way; The University of Michigan Native American Ethnobotany web site lists 254 separate uses by 67 different tribes that had specific documented applications: Cattail roots and stems were consumed as a staple food by nearly every tribe from the Apache to the Yuma; Cattail leaves were woven into thatching for tepees, mats, rugs, clothing, bedding and baskets by the Algonquians, Blackfeet and Chippewa among others; Cattail seed fluff was used as down for baby diapers, pillow stuffing and as lining for moccasins. More surprising is the range of ceremonial uses, an indication of the importance of the cattail as a cultural symbol. The Cheyenne used the leaves in a Sun Dance ceremony, the Navaho wore decorative bracelets in what was called the “Male Shooting Chant” ceremony, and the Ojibwa used the seed pod fuzz for “war medicine” presumably to induce aggression. As a healing medicine, the Delaware boiled the roots to promote the dissolution of kidney stones, the Sioux mixed the seed pod fruits with coyote fat as a salve for smallpox boils and many tribes used a paste made from grinding the rhizomes and stems as a poultice for vulnerary application. As is the case with many herbal and pharmaceutical plant uses of the Native Americans, cattail cuisine and pharmaceuticals were widely adopted by the European colonists whose struggle for subsistence in the wild expanse of the Americas was frequently dire; living off the land was sometimes the only choice.
The cattail deserves its reputation as the bog bodega for good reason. It is ubiquitous, it is prolific, it is readily identifiable with no harmful doppelgängers, and it grows near water where people congregate. It is not, however, easy to harvest. The typical edible wild foods field guide blithely advises the forager to “grasp the leafy stalks below the water and pull straight up.” My personal experience is that it takes a shovel and a lot of chopping to exsect a cattail – the anastomosis of the interconnected roots is admirably designed to hold the plant in place, making manual deracination almost impossible. Once extracted, a single cattail plant offers an entire meal with variations in taste and texture from the rhizomes at the bottom to the flower spike at the top. The roots form a ball at the base of the main stalk that, once cleaned and peeled, can be boiled, baked, fried or even eaten raw – a palatable sweetness evidence of caloric nutrition. The root and stem are comprised of about 40 percent starch by weight which corresponds to about 100 kcal per pound – certainly enough to stave off starvation. They have more calcium, potassium and iron than potatoes and are about 10 percent protein. The lower stem that is 1 to 2 feet above the roots is of similar succulence; it is called with some poetic license “Cossack asparagus” to account for having the general shape and texture of the asparagus (which is also a stem) with presumably some reference to the notion that Cossacks travel light and subsist by forage, as this name is not used in the Cossack homelands of Russia and Ukraine. The flower spike can be harvested, cooked and eaten much like a miniature ear of corn, the provenance of the corn-dog sobriquet. The cornucopia that is the cattail suggests a panacea for feeding the burgeoning world population. Grounding cattail stems into flour yields approximately 7,000 pounds an acre, enough to provide food for one person for a year, saving a few to decorate a shelter made from the interwoven leaves. But you would still need to dig them up.