Cattails ------ by: Coy Domecq

Cattails are considered by many to be invasive weeds that choke shallow ponds and crowd out other
plant species. It has been said that cattails can grow faster in water than corn does in a fertilized field.
The familiar sight of the common cattail plants can be seen around the edges of ponds, creeks, freshwater marshes, and ditches. These plants have the distinctive characteristics of slender upright stalks that reach as high as ten feet and the unique brown hotdog-like flower spikes. Cattails reproduce by seeds that germinate readily in sun-laden shallow water and by underground roots, or rhizomes.

Even with the disdain many people feel towards cattails, they have played an important role in human
history and still serve a vital function in wildlife habitat. Historical records reveal that cattails were consumed by Europeans as long as 30,000 years ago. Many parts of the cattail can be eaten. Native Americans gathered rhizomes and root-stock when other food sources were scarce. The roots contain more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice. The outer parts of young plants, when boiled, taste similar to asparagus. The newly developed flower spikes can also be boiled and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. The pollen can be collected and used as a flour to be baked. The leaf bases can be eaten raw or cooked, especially when they are young. (With all the food versatility cattails provide, caution should be exercised that cattail roots be collected from unpolluted water sources as the roots can absorb and accumulate lead and pesticides.)

In addition to the many food uses of cattails, they also once provided a building supply store for early, and not so early, humans. The dried stems were used for weaving to produce roofing materials and baskets. The brown, fluffy flower spike particles were stuffed into pillows as fill. The dried spike materials were also long used as flotation fill in life jackets, or the air-cell filled stalks when bundled as an impromptu personal floaty. Studies have shown that even after being submerged for more than 100 hours, cattail fibers remain buoyant.