Friday, October 3, 2014

Cattail Magic

One of the first pit stops I made while researching resistant starch was early man's use of cattails.  Mounds of evidence suggest that humans, and even Neanderthals, utilized cattails in their lives.  Cattail starch granules showed up on microscopic examinations of stone age grinding tools and the cattail range are extensive--miles and miles, acre upon acre of cattails line the shores of marshes the world over.  There is just no way early man would have ignored this feast.

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.
From: Ethnobotanical Leaflets
So I think it's safe to say that early man had access to cattails.  Cattails are incredibly versatile, too!

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
What drew me to this sandbar were the acres of cottongrass growing there.  Cottongrass is a sedge, in the same family as tiger nuts.  I wanted to see if they held any treasure below ground. The Eskimo collect what is known as 'mouse food,' or roots and seeds collected by mice and stored in their nests.  Cottongrass roots are one of the typical mouse foods, the roots are said to resemble 'raindrops' in appearance.  Unfortunately I never got around to digging in the cottongrass, perhaps another visit to this place is in order! 

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.

Cattail Roots

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.

Cattail shoots

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!

Cattail Starch

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!



  1. would you say there like an onion to an extent in texture taste ??? pretty cool

    1. It was more like raw asparagus, I guess. No bitterness or heat like in onion. Sweet actually. Very tasty. I wish I had some closer to home, I'd dig up a big mess and experiment.

    2. so you recommend just eating it raw?

    3. It's good raw. The little shoots anyway. Look at the link that Dr. BG posted in the comments, lots of recipes.

      I'm really surprised no one has commercialized these things.

    4. This forager (below) recommends eating above the waterline for cattails. I think eating anything raw depends on the water source. In China, water chestnuts are an ancient and rich source of RS however in the modern day no one advises eating raw because of a risk of contamination with liver flukes.

      (can't paste, google motherearthnews eating cattails)


  2. As I was reading this I was thinking that I have no idea what cattails are. Then I saw the picture with the flowers and I recognized them as bullrushes, which is what they're called in southern Ontario, and I presume the rest of Canada (British English).
    Interesting as a food source - would never have thought so...

  3. Replies
    1. Miss Gemma just sent me this:

      If you do a Ctrl-F search for 'cattail' you'll find a couple references. Looks like it has good magnesium, potassium, and zinc, but also looks like they haven't tried very to do a nutritional breakdown on the cattail.

    2. My first thought was... hmm... I haven't seen these anywhere around here. I wonder where I can find them? It turns out they are so prevalent I just never noticed them. There are tons of them growing not 200 meters from my house. :)

    3. I wondered if you had them down there. The only thing I might worry about is if they were growing in contaminated water. The pollen in the spring should be unaffected, though.

  4. I hope not to spoil the next blog content:

    Dietary intervention with narrow-leaved cattail rhizome flour (Typha angustifolia L.) prevents intestinal inflammation in the trinitrobenzenesulphonic acid model of rat colitis

    1. Wow, thanks! I had nothing for a follow-up. That was a great find!

      "Typha angustifolia L. is a perennial aquatic macrophyta from the Typhaceae family that grows over broad climate and habitat ranges. This plant is named as taboa (Brazil), Lesser Bulrush (Britain) and narrow-leaved cattail or cattail (North America and other countries). T. angustifolia is characterised by its fast growth and high biomass [14]. Interestingly, several parts of the plant are edible, including dormant sprouts on the roots and bases of the leaves, ripe pollen, the stem and the starchy roots [15,16]. T. angustifolia and other species of the genus Typha are widely used as medicinal plants. In Brazil, Latin America and North America, the leaves are used as a diuretic, an astringent, a desiccant, a haemostatic agent and a vulnerary. In addition, the rhizomes are used as a diuretic, an astringent and an antimycobacterial. Moreover, the pollen is used in the treatment of scrofula, abscesses and abdominal pain, and the powder of the fuzz and rhizomes are used to prevent chafing, sores, inflammation, kidney stones and diarrhoea [17-20]. The rhizomes of T. angustifolia pods are also characterised by high fibre (17.20 g/100 g of flour) and carbohydrate (67.29 g/100 g flour) contents, and they are known to be rich in starch granules [16,21,22], which can be used by colonic microbiota as substrates for anaerobic fermentation and the production of SCFAs."

      High fiber, production of SCFAs, pollen, starch granules...what's not to like?

  5. • Pretty cool! I am currently living in Arizona. Awhile back I was touring some old Native American sites, and they had signs up everywhere in front of different wild growing plants. The prepper side of me became interested in how much was available as food. Then came duck's post on the tiger nut, and I started to think how many of those plants would fill the same need as tiger nuts, potatoes, etc., in feeding the gut bugs. I know I have seen books and web sites listed on some of the prepper sites by people who have researched the old knowledge of what is wild and edible. Some people even teach classes. I would like to find someone who does one day. I think it would be easier to grow a garden of dandelion, tiger nuts and kudzu than just about any other crop out there. Turns out, maybe healthier too.

    1. at least you know they wouldn't be GMO.

  6. Spectacular post! Here is a recipe how to collect the RS2 starch -- very similar to your method of retrieving potato starch. This survivalist has a cattail/acorn flour recipe for bread lol (but I'd dump the wheat part)

    1. This is just another example of a high quality starch our ancestors had. It's too bad we've forgotten these foods. I'd love to know how cattails were used thousands of years ago.