Foraging for Cattails

Did you know cattails not only are edible, common and practical for many uses, but also explode at high speeds? Now you know.

My first memory of cattails is from when I was very young. My grandmother and I were on a road trip, when she suddenly pulled off onto the shoulder of the busy road. She proceeded to gather about five stalks and get back into the car. She began driving again and rolled down all of the windows.
“Okay, Maddie, when I say GO, stick this cattail out the window and throw it against the road hard, and then look back at it.”
I obediently followed her direction and looked back: It had exploded into fluffy bits all over the road, and we laughed again and again as I threw each one out the window. Ah, the good days.

It’s definitely recommended that you do this with your children at your soonest opportunity.

Where you Can Find Cattails (Habitat)

Cattails need a lot of water, in fact they usually grow on the edges of ponds and swamps. If you explore the edges of a body of water long enough, you’re bound to come across some cattails eventually.
***As always, never harvest plants near roads or heavily traveled trails. Plants can absorb toxins, and you would not want to eat anything that heavily saturated in toxins!
The shoots are generally harvested in early spring, while the pollen should be harvested in May or June.
Notice how is oval at the base, where an iris is flat at the base. To collect the shoots, grab the inner part of the plant down low and pull. It should come up fairly easily.

Uses for Cattails

Beyond simply their fluffy explosive qualities at high speed (heh heh..), cattails are super nutritious, and every part of it can be utilized in one way or another! Here is a short list of inedible uses, followed by the edible uses:

  • Dipping the head in oil or fat, they can be used as torches.
  • The fluffy wool is similar to down and can be used as insulation in clothing, pillows, mattresses and quilts.
  • The lower parts of the leaves can be used in a salad
  • The young stems can be eaten raw or boiled
  • The young flowers (cattails) can be roasted.
  • Yellow pollen (appears mid-summer) of the cattail can be added to pancakes for added nutrients. Shake the pollen into a paper bag and use it as a thickener in soups and stews or mix it with flour for some great tasting bread.
  • The root can be dried and pounded to make nutritious flour (high in protein and carbohydrates)
  • Young shoots can be prepared like asparagus but requires longer cooking time to make them tender. Added to soup towards the end of cooking, they retain a refreshing crunchiness. They’re delicious in stir-fry dishes and excellent in almost any context.

Caution

  • Cattails are a bioaccumulater, meaning that they absorb toxic chemicals. With this in mind, you would not want to harvest any that may have been sprayed or are located along a roadside. You also want to be 100% sure of their water source!
  • Common lookalike: Irises. The young shoots can be mistaken for irises. Irises are toxic, but if you are looking where you can see old cattails, you should be ok.

a delicious stack of cattail pollen pancakes
cattail pollen pancakes, mmm!

Amazing Cattail Recipes

These are some of my all-time FAVORITE cattail recipes! Each link opens in a new window and is written by other foragers/chefs. Have fun experimenting!

Have you used cattails to make anything? Do you have any favorite recipes? Share them in the comments. please!

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