In Africa, we evolved alongside tiger nuts (cyperus esculentus). When we marched out of Africa, you can bet we were looking for a suitable substitute. Tiger nuts were found on the edges of marshes and required a bit of digging. Cattails would have been encountered by the first people to reach their range and exploited similarly.
Cattails grow just about everywhere. The reeds of the bible that hid Moses were likely cattails. Of cattail distribution:
The four North American cattails are: T. latifolia, T. angustifolia, T. glauca, and T. domengensis. T. latifolia has a range including Europe and Asia (Mohlenbrock 1970). In North America, it ranges widely from Alaska, through Canada, throughout the U.S. and into Mexico (Hotchkiss & Dozier 1949). It is common in every county in Illinois (Mohlenbrock 1970). T. angustifolia grows in Africa, Europe, and Asia (Mohlenbrock 1970). In North America, it ranges from the Northeast to the Midwest and also California (Hotchkiss & Dozier 1949). In Illinois it occurs throughout most of the state (Mohlenbrock 1970). Besides North America, T. qlauca and T. domengensis are also found in Europe. These two however, do not occur in Illinois. In the U.S., T. glauca ranges from the upper Midwest and Northeast down the Altantic coast to Florida and into Alabama. It also occurs in California. T. domengensis, being well adapted to brackish waters, grows along the coast from Delaware to Mexico and also occurs in the Southwest.So I think it's safe to say that early man had access to cattails. Cattails are incredibly versatile, too!
From: Ethnobotanical Leaflets
From the same source as the previous quote:
Even though parts of the plant are very fibrous, they can be edible. The enlarged portion of the rhizome at the base of each plant can be used in two ways. It is very starchy and when sliced can be used as a potato substitute. It can also be ground and used as flour. Niethammer (1974) reports that the average rhizome production per acre is ten times greater than that of potatoes. And that when it is ground into flour produces 32 tons per acre, greater than that of wheat, rye, and other grains. Rhizome shoots, young leaf shoots, the inner stem and immature spike can all be used like a vegetable. The pollen can be used as flour and the "fluff" when mixed with tallow was used like chewing gum (Niethammer 1974).I could write an entire book on the uses and benefits of cattails, and probably should. There are lots of cattail resources out there if you choose to look. I've known most of this information on cattails for several years and have been dismayed that I had none close to my house to experiment with, afterall, even though I live almost at the Arctic Circle, I'm well withing the range of this 'superfood.'
Well all that recently changed! Lucky me, I was out hunting for my winter meat supply along the Tanana River near Fairbanks, Alaska, when I stumbled on a huge cattail patch. It was growing on a sandbar in the middle of the river and stretched nearly 1/4 mile. There were thousands of cattails here! I would have a nice picture, but it was pouring down rain that day and my wife gave me strict instructions I was not to ruin my new camera. Let's just say it was a beautiful sight to me.
|Vicinity of cattail marsh...Arctic Cottongrass (Eriophorum Scheuchzeri) in center of picture|
I did, however, get industrious that early September rainy day and dug up several bucketfuls of cattail roots and plants to bring home and play with. I've replanted them in a marshy area along a creek in my backyard and will hopefully have a new cattail marsh to forage in soon.
Cattail roots are nothing like I expected. I thought I would find a big, starchy bulb, but no. The root is actually a rhizome. The rhizome spreads for yards in each direction spawning new cattail plants along it's length. Also along the rhizome are tender little shoots of new cattail plants. Now, keep in mind that in September this far north, the growing season is over and these cattails are fully prepared to spend the next 8 months living on starch reserves as they lie nearly frozen beneath the muck. What you see here, are cattails rhizomes in their prime eating condition. I'm sure that cattails can be eaten throughout the growing season, and there are probably benefits to eating them at different stages of their lifecycle, but for starch production, a late Fall gathering would be best.
Here is an underground root/rhizome section from a cattail plant and three of the cattail flowers. Notice how small the flowers are, I remember seeing these as a kid in Ohio with giant, foot-long 'cat tails'. These were maybe 4-5" at most. I'd love to see the rhizomes of cattails grown in a warmer climate with a long growing season.
Notice these shoots of new growth. These are tasty and crunchy pulled straight from the ground. I can only imagine what a delicacy they'd be cooked in butter and seasoned. I really can't believe that these are not to be found in grocery stores.
Here is a rhizome split in half. They are filled with a sticky, starchy substance that is easily scraped away.
|Rhizome cut in half|
From this measly little rhizome, about 12" long, a nice big glob of starchy fiber. It has a mild flavor, not objectionable at all. Slightly sweet, but decidedly starchy. I can only imagine the uses you'd find for such a substance living in a harsh environment like the Arctic. I can tell you you would never starve near a cattail marsh!
Well, that's that. My great cattail experiment. Now I know what they are 'all about' and not just from reading about them. If anyone has a cattail patch nearby, go play in it! I've also heard great things about the easily collected pollen at certain times of the year. As far as I'm concerned, the cattail is indeed a 'superfood' and probably one that fueled man on his global expansion and domination.
I plan on digging into cattails a bit deeper as I feel I have done an injustice to the nutritional qualities of this plant here. I'd love to know more about the RS, protein, and phytochemicals that make up this powerhouse of goodness. Watch for more cattail blogs as I find out more. If any of ya'all have any good stories or facts, love to hear 'em!