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WSU/Pend Oreille Extension introduced the Sense of Place series in 1999, with a focus on local landscape and natural history of Pend Oreille County, Washington. A partnership with the Kalispel Tribe of Indians Natural Resources Department has allowed us to expand this program through EPA funding to include more classes, a newsletter and this website.

Cattails: the Supermarket of the Swamp


by Karen Dickson and Wilma Cullooyah

The cattail is one of the best and most versatile of native wild foods. In early spring the young shoots, which are easily pulled from the rootstocks, can be peeled to a tender white core and eaten raw as you would celery, or in a salad, or sliced and sautéed in butter. When the shoot is about two feet tall, the core becomes tough and fibrous.

In early summer, you can take young green pollen spikes and boil them in salted water for twenty minutes. Put butter on them and eat like corn on the cob. As the pollen ripens and turns yellow, large amounts can be gathered by shaking the heads in an open bag. After it is sifted through a strainer, the pollen makes excellent protein-rich flour when mixed
half-and-half with wheat flour. Be sure to dry the pollen thoroughly before storing for future use. In late summer, the top portion of the same spike will fluff up as seeds ripen.

Cattails are almost anywhere soil remains wet, saturated or flooded most of the growing season. This includes wet
meadows, marshes, pond and lake margins, floating bog mats, roadside ditches, irrigation canals, and backwater areas of rivers and streams. It is generally restricted to areas where the water depth never exceeds about 2 feet.

Two species are found locally. Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) has broader leaves and its fruiting spikes show no separation between the male (pollen) and female (seed) sections. It is generally found in shallow water. Narrow-leaved Cattail (Typha angustifolia) has narrower leaves and a gap between the male and female flowerheads. It is found in relatively deeper water.

Sadly, some cattail habitats are no longer clean enough to use cattails safely as food. Only gather from sources that you know are unpolluted, and be sure to clean and wash thoroughly. In fact, cattails are sometimes used to help clean polluted water because they are able to absorb and concentrate pollutants—a process called bio-remediation.

Nineteen Uses for Cattails

1. Cattails contain ten times the starch of an equal weight of potatoes.
2. In early spring, new shoots may be picked, peeled, cooked or eaten raw.
3. Harvest young flowerheads, boil them and eat like corn on the cob or pickle them and store for
future eating.
4. Collect early summer pollen in a bag and add to other flours.
5. Winter rootstocks can be rinsed, dried, mashed and ground into flour.
6. Use fresh-pounded root directly as a poultice on infections, blisters and stings. Tie in place overnight and replace as needed the next day.
7. The sticky substance at the base of the green leaf is antiseptic, and even a bit numbing.
8. Boil leaves for external skin wash.
9. Starchy, mashed root can be used as a toothpaste.
10. Use pollen as a hair conditioner.
11. Drink root flour in a cup of hot water or eat the young flower heads to bind diarrhea and dysentery.
12. Use the fuzz from mature female flower heads for scalds or burns.
13. For diaper rash, you can place fuzz in diaper to soak up urine.
14. The down on mature flower heads makes excellent tinder.
15. Dry stalks can be used for hand drill or arrow shafts with added hardwood rock and foreshaft.
16. Leaves are an excellent source for thatching, basket weaving, cordage, dolls and other toys and figurine making.
17. Dip brown head of a dry stalk in animal fat for a torch.
18. Mix pollen with honey and apply to bruises, sores or swellings.
19. Pollen can also be used as a mild diuretic.


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