Cattails are one of the ultimate wilderness survival plants that provide use year-round.
Cattails are a big favorite of wilderness survival. The entire plant is edible and offers different parts to use year-round. Cattails are also great for providing uses in a emergency situations such as natural cordage and fire tinder.
Cattails are probably the most easily recognized and known aquatic plant to any outdoorsman who spends time near water. They like to grow in large groups in shallow water or slow-moving waters exposed to sunlight. They grow to about five feet tall with long sword-like leaves. The seed head grows near the top of the stock and is green to brown with a yellow pollen spike on top.
The cattail is completely edible year-round. Different parts are best harvested at different times of the year. They can be cooked, pickled, eaten raw in salads or by themselves, and turned into flour.
Spring- In spring when the seed head is green, it can be boiled up to be eaten like corn on the cob. I tried this earlier this year and let me tell you, it doesn’t taste like corn. It has a taste that is all its own. When the seed heads turn brown they are no longer good to eat.
The younger shoots shorter than 24 inches can be harvested and prepared like asparagus. Just grab them and pull straight out of the ground before breaking apart the outer leaf layers to reveal the white inner cores. Boil them up or eat them raw.
Summer- In early summer the seed heads produce a small spike on the top that is covered in yellow pollen. Cattail pollen is very high in protein, but very hard to collect. You must carefully drape a bag over the head and snap it off. Then gently shake the pollen out into the bag. Just remember the slightest breeze will blow it all away so be patient and careful. Sift the pollen into a container and it is ready to use.
Fall to Winter- In late fall, throughout winter, the root stocks become filled with lots of starches. Dig them up and boil them like potatoes. They can also be ground down into a powder for a great white flour for making flat breads or thickening stews.
Cordage- The dried leaves from cattails make for great lightweight cordage. It won’t haul a deer away, but can be lashed together to make shift weapons or other items.
Carefully collect whole leaves off the plants while you are foraging the edible parts. Set them out flat in the sun, or carefully hang them from a tree. After a few days they should be dry enough to begin the cordage-making process. I use the reverse wrap method with an entire leaf to make my cordage from them.
Fire Tender- When the seed heads turn brown, their fluffy insides make an excellent fire tinder. Just break them off the plant and break them open. Carefully pull out the cottony insides to use for great tinder.
Just be careful and have everything ready when making your fire as the fluff burns up extremely quick. I find it is best added to a fire nest to just help ignite it and not a stand-alone bundle.
You will probably never look at cattails the same after learning all they are capable of. If you are ever lost and happen to stumble upon them, I would stay put as long as possible while waiting for help. Then you know you will at least have food, fire tinder, and cordage, if needed.