How to Eat Cattail

This post is a follow-up to the The Fantastic Four – 4 Essential Wild Edible Plants that May Just Save Your Life article. In this post I demonstrate how to process and eat one of the core four essential plants: Cattail.

Since I want to demonstrate it to you guys, I can only show you what’s available from the cattail in the fall/winter time (since right now it’s the fall/winter time…duh). I plan on adding to this article in the upcoming seasons to fully complete the food availability of this marvelous plant.

While there are a few other edible parts of the cattail in the fall and winter, the cattail’s best source of food during this time is the nutritious and calorie-dense starch found in the rhizomes (roots) underground. In today’s post I’ll be demonstrating how you collect, process, and consume the nutritious parts of this readily available wild plant.

Collecting the Cattail

Cattail is found throughout all of North America and much of the western hemisphere worldwide. It prefers to grow in wetland areas but you may as likely find it on the side of the road in a moist ditch. As I mentioned in the Fantastic Four: 4 Plants that can save your life article, it is often referred to as the supermarket of the swamp — and for good reason — as it provides nutritious (and may I add tasty) food through all four seasons.

During the colder seasons, be prepared to get a bit wet and cold. If you don’t mind the cold like me, you can go in barefoot, however it’s just as acceptable to strap on a pair of large waterproof boots and gloves and trudge through the muck to collect the cattail. Here’s the process:

  1. Correctly identify cattail: In the late seasons, cattail is pretty easy to identify. You’ll want to look for what looks like a hotdog on a stick. Sometimes that ‘hotdog’ or seed head will begin breaking apart looking like a bunch of fuzz at the end of a stick. Here’s some pictures for examples:

    Notice the hotdog on a stick

    cattail fuzz starting to form

    cattail fuzz starting to form

  2. Loosen up and pull out the rhizomes: Now that you’ve identified cattail, it’s time to march out into the muck to pull out the food. Most of the time you can’t just simply pull at the base of the cattail and out pops out a perfect rhizome. Instead, your best bet is to first loosen up the rhizomes before pulling the plant out.

    To do this, follow your hand down the stalk of the cattail until you reach the base. Then begin to guide your hand down from the base into the mud until you can feel one of the rhizome branches shooting out to one side. Here’s where you’ll pull and push the rhizome until it loosens up a bit. Do this with the other side and then grab the base of the stalk and puuullll. You should be able to pull out a good length of rhizome on each side of the base.

  3. Separate the rhizomes from the stalk: his is simply just cutting off the stalk so you’re only left with the rhizomes. Keep in mind that there are edible corms (the beginnings of next year’s growth) growing on the rhizomes and near the base. You’ll want to make sure to keep these as well since they are a good food source.
    Rhizomes (shown w/ cut stalk)

    Rhizomes (shown w/ cut stalk)


    Edible corm

    Edible corm


    Another example of the corms after the base of the stalk is clean

    Another example of the corms after the base of the stalk is clean

  4. Clean the rhizomes: After remove the rhizomes, try to clean them as best as possible before bringing them home (or to camp), since they are covered in mud. Most areas where you collect the cattail will have a body of water nearby. Just take the muddy rhizomes and clean them as best as possible in the water (you don’t have to be perfect here).
  5. Preparing the Cattail

    Now that you have a bunch of cattail rhizomes in hand, it’s time to process them into something that you can eat. Here are the steps:

    1. Clean thoroughly: You’ll want to do a thorough cleaning job making sure all the mud is off of the cattails. If the rhizomes look dirty even after the mud is off, it’s alright since they will be peeled in an upcoming step.
      Looks like giant insect legs huh?

      Looks like giant insect legs huh?

    2. Remove and peel the corms: The corms are the small shoots and stubs that are near the base of the cattail and on the rhizomes. These should be removed and peeled by hand to reveal the tender centers. If you want you can eat these raw at this stage or cook them.
      Fried in a little butter or olive oil, the corms taste great

      Fried in a little butter or olive oil, the corms taste great


      Here's a picture of the rhizomes (right), corms (lower left) and older corms/new shoots (upper left) - all edible an all very tasty

      Here's a picture of the rhizomes (right), corms (lower left) and older corms/new shoots (upper left) - all edible an all very tasty

    3. Peel the rhizomes: I like to use a sharp knife or a potato peeler. Peel it just like you would a potato to reveal the starchy center.peeled_rhizome

    Removing the Starch and Making the Flour

    The next step is to extract the starch from the peeled rhizomes. There are two ways of doing this:

    Rhizome breaking method

    The first and most common way is to break apart the rhizome in a big bowl of water, working it in your hands until the starch is removed.

    The water will soon turn a milky white and when left to settle for around 3 hours, you’ll be left with the thick saturated starch at the bottom and the light debris floating on the top.


    cattail_water1

    Milky water

      
    Starch settled to the bottom (after pouring off some water)

    Starch settled to the bottom (after pouring off some water)


    After pouring off the water and debris, take the white ‘pasty’ starch and lay it out on a flat surface to dry outside or in your oven (at the lowest temp) or in a dehydrator.

    Knife/Rock scraping method

    The second way (my favorite) is to scrape a sharp rock or a knife along the rhizome in a similar manner to squeezing a toothpaste tube from the bottom up. This will force the starch to be drawn out and it will collect on the knife or rock.

    You can either take this starch and lay it out to dry or stir it in a container of water so that the small fibrous ‘threads’ from the rhizomes float and separate from the starch.

    In the same manner as the previous method, after a few hours you can pour the water and debris off and lay out the remaining starch to be dried.

    Making the flour

    After the starch has dried sufficiently you can now grind it in a mortar and pestle or put it through a wheat grinder to get a finer flour-like consistency. This flour can be used in place of wheat or used in conjunction with wheat and other flours. See one of my favorite recipes below.

    Cattail flour after grinding and sifting

    Cattail flour after grinding and sifting

    Cattail Acorn Bread

    One of my favorite recipes is cattail/acorn bread. The cattail flour combined with the acorn flour from the How to Make Acorn Flour article make a tasty combination with a typical bread recipe:


    Water 1/2 cup
    Milk 1 cup
    Unsalted butter or vegetable oil 2 tablespoons
    Salt 1 1/2 teaspoons
    Sugar 2 tablespoons
    Wheat flour 2 cups
    Acorn flour 1 cup
    Cattail flour 1 cup
    Dry yeast 2 1/4 teaspoon

    To make the bread pictured below I used the above ingredients and threw it in a bread machine, set it to ‘basic bread’ mode and voila! 3 hours later I had some great tasting cattail/acorn bread.

    In a survival/primitive situation it’s a simple matter of taking the dough and throwing it on some hot coals from your fire for ash cakes — also surprisingly tasty!

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53 Comments»

Comment by Doug
2009-11-01 22:41:50

Another home run! I have cattails in my pond. I’ll add this to the gathered acorns and give the bread a shot. I’ll let you know how it comes out.

 
Comment by Erich
2009-11-02 14:41:26

Thanks Doug. Definitely let us know how it works out for you.

 
Comment by Dee
2009-12-06 18:39:00

Thanks so much for this article. I’m a wild food harvesting newbie – and though I went out and got myself some excellent field guides, your articles is the best I have come across on the net, actually detailing the steps of how to get those rhizomes and then process them. THanks!

Couple quick questions:

1) I’ve been told that its not a good idea to take cattails near a roadway because they soak up the heavy metal from carbon emissions given off by passing cars. Do you know if this is true for the rhizome as much as the shoots in spring?

2) Also, the most accessible colony of cattails NOT by the roadside near me, are bordering a river rather known for its polluted condition. I’m guessing this is probably not a good spot to harvest ‘edible’ cattail from either?

Thanks again for the great article!

 
Comment by Erich
2009-12-06 18:51:03

Dee,

Thanks for reading! Yes I’ve heard the same thing with regards to cattails and pollutants. I know the young shoots when eaten raw can be harmful if taken from polluted waters and should at least be cooked (although heavy metals cannot be cooked away). However, I’m not so sure about the rhizomes. I do imagine that they absorb some of the pollutants as well.

However, for survival purposes, you may not have the luxury so in my opinion anything goes.

 
Comment by Dee
2009-12-06 19:47:50

Thanks for the response – and I agree, in an emergency situation I don’t think one could afford to be too fussy. And I’m guessing other than the heavy metals or other seriously harmful man-made toxins, the boiling or cooking process would rid the rhizomes of most other potential pests (like flukes and bacteria).

Also, dunno if you were going to post this but some other AMAZING uses for the cattails aside from the edibles – which I’ve had direct experience with.

1) the seeded “hotdogs” make EXCELLENT torches and/or punks when dipped in tree pitch or kerosene. They also keep bugs away better than any citronella candle.

2) The mucus or “jelly like” substance you get in the spring when pulling shoots, if saved and scraped off in a bag or jar makes an EXCELLENT surface analgesic and coagulant. (Great to place on cuts, insect bites, scratches and burns)

3) The fronds or long leaves can be used as cordage, provide excellent thatching material and can even be caned or woven into baskets, sleeping mats, etc. (Some were recently dug up in a paleo-indian cave and dated to be at least 10,000 years old and yet still relatively solid and in-tact)

4) The “fluff” from seeded pods can be used to make paper quite easily, but more importantly makes outstanding kindling starter. It can also be used as insulation or stuffing (though many people report hives or allergic reactions if the actual seeded material comes in too much close, constant contact with the skin) – best to use a good insulating material between the stuffing and the skin.

Cattails really are an amazing utility plant as well as a food source. I get amazed that most people view them merely as nuisance “pond weeds”.

 
Comment by Erich
2009-12-06 20:03:12

Dee,

Thanks again for the comments. I do plan on doing some of what you listed when I get into utilitarian purposes of local plants. I agree, cattails are a wonderful utilitarian plant. You mentioned paper being made from the cattail down, I’ve never heard of that one. Do you know the process in doing that? I’d love to try that.

 
Comment by Dee
2009-12-06 22:59:20

Here’s the link from E-how I used when I first tried making my own:

http://www.ehow.com/how_5549619_make-paper-cattails.html

Couple things the article doesn’t go into much:

1) Make sure that the seeds are truly fully matured/dry – the fluff is quite water resistant so the “dryer” the better. And don’t be surprised if it takes a little work to get all those fluffy little buggers completely submerged in your kettle.

2) I found working with about 5 seed heads at a time worked better. Smaller kettle, less fuss – really a matter of preference to be honest

3) Step 3 is critical – rinsing until the water is basically clear (much like the process for removing tannins) Don’t skimp on this step or you’ll end up with lumpy, blotched results.

4) TIP: You can buy a single sheer door or window curtain at a major outlet for a couple bucks (or less on sale) which makes an ideal strainer (large enough) for the clear rinsing process of the pulp.

5) Some people like to blend the pulp after rinsing (typically no more than a cup or so at a time) – it does add some “quality” to the dried sheets, but unless you’re willing to dedicate your blender solely for papermaking, I don’t recommend this.

6) An old screen door or window make decent drying screens – but another quick alternative is to buy some ‘pest mesh’ (comes in rolls at most garden or hardware outlets) and tack the corners to a simple wooden frame. The biggest thing with your mesh drying rack is that the mesh itself is small/tight enough so as to not allow the pulp to “droop” through and reasonably flat/even across the surface.

Hope that helps. If I ever manage to find (or buy another) my usb cord for my digital camera, I’ll upload some of my finished paper results and post a link. I really love it – great for LOTS of things – but not sure how “useful” it would be in a survival situation. (I’d had to waste all the work on fancy homemade toilet paper *grin*)

It’s a fairly lengthy/labor intensive process – but for veteran paper crafters, cattail fluff is surprisingly easy to work with and with some pretty wonderful results

 
Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2009-12-09 12:20:41

Dee,

Thanks for the great info! I’ll definitely try this out and post my results.

– Erich

 
Comment by Brian Cameron
2010-10-07 20:32:31

I found this blog by accident through a google search on how to eat cattail. This post has inspired me and I have my first batch in of cattail goo in the dehydrator. This blog has been incredibly helpful, thank you!

Comment by Erich
2010-10-08 07:25:11

You’re very welcome Brian. Be sure to post your results so we can all learn.

 
 
Comment by Stephen Klaber
2010-11-19 23:24:22

The enormous quantity of this weed growing wild in the world makes this Strategic intelligence more than tactical. Every famine relief organization needs to be pounded with this information as does the Lake Chad Basin commission. Harvesting it could stamp out famine. There really is that much. Uncontrolled, the trouble it creates is unbelievable. This is the breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry malaria and yellow fever, the Quelea birds that ravage African crops, and the snails that carry bilharzia. It is also the source of the silt that is destroying Lake Chad and many other lakes. The loss of “lake effect” rains is a major part of climate degradation, and should be readily reversible. Cattail sloughs that should be lakes are a major part of our dustbowl problem. Thanks for helping point out their use.

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2010-11-20 14:15:10

Stephen,

Some good comments and observations there. As an interesting note, a study was conducted at the Cattail Research Center of Syracuse University’s Department of Plant Sciences by Leland Marsh. He reported that he could harvest 140 tons of rhizomes per acre near Wolcott, NY. That equates to more than 10 times the average yield per acre of potatoes! Clearly this is an underutilized crop.

 
 
Comment by Janet Lund
2012-01-14 17:11:12

I’ve been reading a lot about the benefits of cattail and that it makes a good flour. I’m looking for good flours for a gluten free diet. This interests me a lot, but I have limited time for harvesting and processing them myself. Is there ANYWHERE that I can purchase the already processed cattail flour? I appreciate any information on where I could purchase it.

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-01-15 19:43:12

Hi Janet,

I too have looked given that I love the taste and don’t always have the time to make some. Unfortunately, I haven’t found any yet.

 
 
Comment by Melissa
2012-02-02 11:32:05

Awesome article! I have read about using cattails for food and other purposes many times and, living in the country, I have good access to lots of them so I was excited to see here that you have such great info about their preparation. One caution that I read- cattails are an emmenagogue so pregnant women (which I am sadly) should steer clear of them. Thanks for sharing! I’m enjoying exploring the rest of your site!

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-02-03 17:19:38

Thanks for the visit Melissa!

 
 
Comment by Bill
2012-02-05 07:01:27

I really want to try this, but the one thing that i don’t know is how to separate the water from the starch. How can this be done?

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-02-06 01:30:13

Hey Bill,
The best thing to do is let it sit for a couple hours (the starchy slurry). You will see that the solids (the starchy powder) settles to the bottom. Once completely settled, just pour the water off until you are only left with the wet sludge at the bottom. That you can then just sit it outside to air dry or let it dry in a dehydrator in your home.

 
 
Comment by Angela
2012-03-10 21:36:35

Onw question … has anyone noticed that if you pull the cattails from ditches on the side of the road, they taste funny??? Maybe polution?? Maybe car “residue”?? Gas, oil, etc??? Just curious.

 
Comment by Angela
2012-03-10 22:38:28

I lied ..one other question … what happens if you don’t have wheat flour? Can this recipe above be made strictly out of acorn and cattail flour?

2012-03-11 20:47:39

Angela,

Yes, cattail is a sponge for toxic chemicals so stay away from those near roadways or farm runoff.

Regarding wheat, you can make a “bread” strictly out of cattail flour but not using the above recipe. Since cattail has no gluten, it lacks the binding properties that makes what we know of as a loaf of bread. What I’ve done on survival outings is use the cattail flour as “ash-cakes”. Literally throw the cattail dough on a bed of hot ashes and let it bake. It will make a tasty biscuit-like food.

 
 
Comment by Bret
2012-04-04 08:56:48

Great information! I stumbled upon this site after a Google search on how to eat cat tail as well. Thanks for putting the time in to educate others. I look forward to exploring the rest of the site.

2012-04-04 10:50:32

Thanks for stopping by Bret!

 
 
Comment by Lilac
2012-04-17 16:54:07

thanks will you do a thing on skunk cabbbage flour?
i really need to know how to make it thanks!

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-04-18 12:53:13

Lilac,

I never did have much success with Skunk Cabbage. The calcium oxalate (the cause of the burning feeling when consumed) takes forever to get out of the plant so it hasn’t been worth it for me since there are so many other plants around that are edible. If you know of an easier way to get it out, I’d be glad to try it out and let you guys know.

 
 
Comment by Kaleblossom
2012-10-10 22:05:51

Ok this article was splendidly done! Android app please?! I’ve bought a few wild edible apps from the android market and none of them are as in depth as this article!

 
Comment by Lauraly
2012-10-25 10:19:56

Thank you so much for this post!

 
Comment by john wagner
2012-11-02 08:33:03

so with this you either eat the rhizomes like a potato, or you turn them into flour right? If either or has anyone tried mashing them? very cool article.

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-11-02 10:14:53

John,

The rhizomes are pretty stringy so they unfortunately can’t be eaten like a potato. You have to extract the starch by scraping the rhizomes with a knife or by breaking them up in water to release the starch.

The corms can be cooked and eaten like a potato though.

Hope that helps.

– Erich

 
 
Comment by john wagner
2012-11-03 01:34:17

Ah ok tyvm for the reply ill keep this article in my notes!

 
Comment by Angie
2012-11-16 16:52:41

You know you can eat the cattails before they bloom they are in an asparagus stage.

 
Comment by Barry
2012-11-28 18:55:24

Cattail flour is similar to wheat flour, ie., it has gluten in it.

 
Comment by Lauralee
2013-02-10 13:31:28

acknowledgeable.

 
Comment by Mason
2013-02-23 15:47:17

Great article! Very interesting and a great bit to know for survival, camping, or living off the land in general. I was wondering though, how long would the ash cakes take to cook?

 
Comment by Steve
2013-03-13 16:17:51

Overall a good and informative article, the photos make things much easier than text alone. As a survival food it has good qualities, a few things though, Cattail isn’t harvested commercially for some of the reasons you mention in the process, it is too “labor intensive” compared to Corn, Wheat, Oats, and Potatoes. As you state you could produce more Cattails per acre than Potatoes, however again the labor involved to harvest and the fact the Rhizomes are not edible make Potatoes a better “product”, as the whole Potato is edible raw, baked, boiled, and America’s favorite, Fried. They can also make flour and need we say, Vodka. Corn is virtually the same. Wheat and Oats are somewhat labor intensive but have a high yield per acre. If your only source is near a roadway you can still eat them for a few days, you won’t get enough heavy metals to die, your main objective is not to starve, but I would just pick up some corms and keep moving to a better place if possible.

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2013-03-17 20:25:14

Thanks for the good comments Steve. besided harvesting the rhizomes in the way I mentioned, for survival you can also just peel and suck the starches out. It can be a bit “stringy” but you’ll still get some good nutrients and carbs that way.

 
 
Comment by Dirk
2013-03-15 09:33:45

How close to a major roadway is too close? Are we talking the cattails that grow immediately adjacent to the road, or anything within a half-mile radius, or what?

The reason that I ask is that there are quite a few cattails alongside a service road for high tension lines near my house, but within a mile in either direction, there is an interstate, and a pretty busy state highway.

I’d love to try this recipe out, but would like to make sure that I am harvesting from a decent source

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2013-03-17 20:20:16

Dirk,

I try to get at least 200 yards in if possible.

 
 
Comment by Grace
2013-04-08 23:14:05

Paper from cattail fluff?? Fantastic! I will have to try this. I have used cattail fluff for years as pillow and quilt stuffing. It’s a little tricky to work with, I don’t recommend stuffing your item in the house. The fluff gets everywhere. However, my pillows have lasted 20 years and after many trips through the washing machine, they are still just as fluffy as they were when I made them. And it didn’t seem to bother my highly allergenic child like feather pillows did.

 
Comment by iris
2013-04-26 17:51:02

You can also use it to thicken stews, gravies, etc. Well, done

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2013-04-29 14:05:44

Yes you’re right. It’s a great thickener.

 
 
Comment by DaBadMan
2013-07-09 12:59:13

Oh i think i will love this site! I am always looking for more information, tips and tricks for being self sufficient/survival situations. I have not learned anything new from this article, (I grew up on the bayous of louisiana) but it is very descriptive. I am certain that i will learn from you in other articles though!! Excellent work. Please, never stop! =-)

 
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Comment by Steve
2013-11-26 16:46:12

Found another interesting recipe for cattails.
Vegan pull-pork tacos made from cattails:
http://www.smartlivingnetwork.com/food/b/gastronomics-foraged-cattail-vegetarian-pulled-pork-barbeque-recipe/

 
2013-12-12 13:01:50

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