Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Last week I mentioned how I used to wander the countryside when I was a kid. One of the features I remember is a small pond in the meadow next to the woods. The pond was filled with cattail plants. I used to love it when the brown cattail seed pods were ready to pop. I’d grab them, split them open, and watch the fuzzy seed head fluff fly in the air. But I had no idea that the cattail plant is one of the most versatile of wild plants.  

Most of the cattail plant can be used for food. The roots can be ground into flour. The pollen can be gathered and used as a substitute for some of the flour in pancakes to make cattail pancakes. It also works well with cornmeal in cornbread and can be used as a thickener or flour extenders for breads, cakes, etc. 

The sticky sap between cattail leaves is an excellent source of starch and can also be used to thicken soups and broths. The white shoots at the base of the leaf clusters can be boiled or steamed, or sliced and eaten raw in salads. In early spring, the roots can be dug up to locate the small pointed shoots called corms. These can be removed, peeled, and eaten. They can also be added to other spring greens for a salad, or cooked in stews. As the plant growth progresses to where the shoots reach a height of two to three feet above the water, they can be peeled and eaten like the corms, or sauteed. These shoots are called "Cossack Asparagus" because the Russians were so fond of them. 

In early summer, the female and male bloom spikes begin to emerge in the center of the plant. If you pull away the leaves around them, like shucking corn, you can remove the spikes and eat them—boiled like corn or eaten raw. (The female bloom spike is the one that turns into the big brown seed head that I delighted in when I was a kid.)

The cattail also has many traditional folk medicinal properties. When the pollen is placed directly on a cut, it is hemostatic (stops blood flow) and astringent (constricts body tissue). The pollen is also a mild diuretic and is said to induce or hasten menstrual flow. Fresh cattail root can be pounded and used as a poultice on infections, blisters, and stings. The same sticky starch used as a soup thickener can also be used as an antiseptic, coagulant, and to help numb a painful wound. The leaves can be boiled to make an external skin wash. The roots can be mashed and used as toothpaste. You can drink cattail root flour in a cup of hot water. The young flower heads, eaten raw, are said to stop diarrhea and dysentery.

Cattail has other uses, as well. The dried stalks can be used for arrow shafts. Seed heads and dried leaves can be used as tinder. The dried seed heads, still attached to their stalks, can be dipped in melted animal fat or oil and used as torches. The seed head fluff can be used for pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing. The leaves have been used for hundreds of years in the construction of shelters or for woven seats and backs of chairs. They can also be woven into baskets, hats, mats, and beds.

And so, if you're hiking in the rain and you find yourself with blistered feet and an empty stomach, find some cattail. You can make a rain hat, feed yourself, fix your blisters, and stuff your shoes with cattail fuzz.


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