Cattails – Fascinating Wetlands Wild Plant
In March I wrote about exploring three beaver ponds at my grandparent’s old farm property in New Hampshire. With the late winter ground and water still frozen it was easy for me to explore the edges of each pond, especially the one closest to a stream where water was still trickling from underneath a field of granite boulders.
It was near this stream I discovered a large patch of cattails. The long hotdog-shaped tops of the cattails had mostly disintegrated from the top down to disperse tiny brown seeds hidden inside soft white downy fluff. I pulled apart one of the remaining tops to examine it more closely and decided I would look for more information on cattails. Here is what I discovered about this interesting wild plant.
Our most common cattail that is native to North America is Typha latifolia, a broadleaf cattail used by Native Americans as a source of food, clothing, insulation and bedding. Cattails are reed-like, with cylindrical, hollow, tall and stout unbranched stems of 3 to 10 feet high and a long, brown seed head shaped like a long cigar or hotdog at the top of the stem. They grow in large colonies with long, strap-like leaves arranged around the stem and taper to a sharp end. The flowering stem is typically longer than the leaves.
The seed head can have as many as 250,000 seeds with each equipped with a fluffy parachute that catches the wind or floats atop the water. Seeds will also attach to fur, feathers and the muddy feet of wildlife, helping them disperse and colonize new areas.
Along with seeds, cattails also start a new generation of plants by sending out horizontal stems, called rhizomes, from the parent plant that will put down roots and send up new shoots. It is still connected to the root system of the parent plant and benefits from an energy “subsidy” an independent plant started from seed doesn’t have.
Cattail roots (or tubers) are under the mud and store starch in autumn. During winter the dead hollow stocks act like snorkels to bring air down to the living roots. As spring arrives the plant taps these reserves for their first sprout of new growth. That is unless muskrats eat them first.
Cattails, especially the rhizomes, are a favorite food of muskrats, which will dive to the bottom of the pond or mash to dig them up from the bottom. Sometimes the remaining plants not eaten by the muskrat will float to a new location, sink to the bottom and create a new colony by taking root again.
The stalk and roots of younger cattails are edible. I found the essay “Cattails: Nature’s Supermarket,” by Tiffany Soukup in which she describes her process of harvesting and cooking them in the anthology “The Outside Story, Vol. 2,” by Northern Woodlands.
“Standing in ankle deep water, I pulled on a stalk and easily detached it from its base. I slid by hand down a different stalk, submerging my arm into the water, I dug my fingers into the plant’s base in the mud, and with a tug, found myself holding a hairy, white root with stalk still attached. Ten minutes later I had collected enough for a meal.”
“I peeled the long stalks, revealing a white, slightly firm inside. I trimmed the stalks in a similar way I would prepare asparagus. After rinsing and chopping I threw them in a pan with some butter, salt, and pepper. They were delicious, with a texture similar to an onion.”
“For a separate meal, I tried out one of the roots. I cut it in half lengthwise, exposing the inner, white starchy part. I sauteed it, added a splash of water at the end. After cooking I pulled away the dense white insides, hollowing out the root like a canoe. These strips were also very tasty.”
I also found an interesting article at wiki.opensourceecology.org describing the many uses of cattails, even using the fluffy seed parachutes to stuff life jackets.
“One Indian name for the cattail meant ‘fruit for papoose’s bed’ because the fluffy masses of seeds are very soft and do not mat. During World War II, several million pounds of them were used to stuff life jackets, mattresses, pillows and baseballs. Compressed into wallboard, they make excellent insulation against sound and heat. A drying oil similar to linseed, a cooking oil and a wax can be extracted from the seeds, leaving a by-product of meal which is used in cattle and chicken feeds.”
The full article can be found at: https://wiki.opensourceecology.org/wiki/Cattails
More than likely I won’t be harvesting the cattails that seem to be thriving in the abandoned beaver pond at my grandparent’s old farm any time soon. I do, however, have a new appreciation for this unique and special native wild plant that grows in our wetlands.
We live in a beautiful place called The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. Our home is rich in cultural and natural resources. I hope you join me and together let us enjoy them, care for them, and pass them on.
Along with the sources cited above information for this column was sourced from “The Field Guide to Wildlife Habitats,” by Janine M. Benyus, and the US Forest Service.
Bill Reid is the Chief Ranger of The Last Green Valley National Heritage Corridor. He can be reached at 860-774-3300 or email@example.com.
Exploring The Last Green Valley, Sunday, 6-12-22, 2022
The Norwich Bulletin is granted first serial rights and associated electronic rights to publish the following article. The Last Green Valley, Inc. retains all other rights to the work.
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