Useful Applications of Cattails, nicknamed The Water Glizzy
By Trey Youngdahl
Foreword by Steven E Stillwell
Time flies when you’re staying busy, and the best is yet to come. Trey and I have been working together on some important projects, including our podcast shows, and we’ve discussed numerous topics ranging from survival schools, to wild edibles. During one of these conversations he mentioned the venerable cattail, and all of its benefits. I encouraged him to write an article for our reading audience, and the following information is a compilation of his research and personal experiences with this interesting plant. THANK YOU TREY FOR YOUR CONTRIBUTION.
THE WATER GLIZZY: When I tell you that cattails are edible, your mind probably thinks about the highly compressed group of seeds at the top of the stalk in the shape of a corndog, but what I’m referring to is actually the stalk, and roots of the plant. Cattails are deemed ‘The Supermarket of the Swamp’, and they’re an incredible source of food. They grow in abundance, and you can easily find them in, and around water sources. Even small patches of moist soil can grow cattails. Also, because of their abundance, you needn’t worry about over-picking, which is a concern for conscientious people who harvest wild edibles.
Not only are they good for food, they also have other important applications! As well as edible and medicinal applications, they can also serve a more mechanical purpose. Some survivalists carry around a fiber comb to process tinder for fire-making. This comb can be used on the leaves of the cattail, and the fibers can be twisted into cordage.
There are, of course, some things to be wary of when harvesting a cattail. Young cattails could accidently be confused with Iris, which is toxic for humans to ingest. However, the flower head of mature cattail is completely unique with its immediately recognizable ‘HOTDOG’ seed cluster shape. Another thing to consider before foraging for cattails is the condition of the water source that you harvest from. If it is stagnant or polluted, you shouldn’t risk eating it. Cattails naturally clean whatever water source they are growing in by absorbing contaminants in the water. Because of this, cattails growing in ditches or polluted areas should be avoided, as they could make you sick if eaten.
THIS IS HOW TO PROCESS THE STALKS: Cattails can be harvested from spring to fall, but the roots can be harvested year round. The roots are valuable because they have a high concentration of starch. Picking them is as easy as pulling them up from the ground. Grab the stalk near the base and gently yank upward. Because they grow on the bank near the shore, they should come up with little effort, and the roots should come up with the stalk.
To begin processing, start by cutting the roots from the base of the stalk. Although the fibers are wet, a nice sharp knife will be ideal for this, as well as most situations. Then, separate the leaves from the main stalk in the center. They should peel off relatively easily. As you peel the leaves back, you will see some slimy-sap. This liquid has incredible value! It is a natural antiseptic for wounds, and it works like Neosporin. You can treat cuts and scrapes with it, which are all too common in the wilderness. Keeping your wounds clean and infection-free is a wise thing to do when you’re miles away from civilization. Furthermore, this sap works as an analgesic, meaning it helps relieve pain and inflammation! This is great for aliments such as sunburns, toothaches, as well as bug-bites and minor abrasions. It is a good idea to keep a jar, or some kind of container to save the cattail jelly for those situations.
After the leaves are peeled from the stalk, cut approximately four inches up from the bottom of the plant, and sever the roots. Generally, as long as what you’re harvesting is white, it is fit for consumption. If you look at it from the bottom, you’ll see that the outer layer is much too fibrous to consume, as opposed to the more uniform, tender center. To get to the core, you can either pull the fibrous layers off, or use your knife to cut through it to save time. Be careful not to cut yourself, because the sap can make your hands slippery, and this increases the risk of injury. Once you get to the core, you can either cook them, or eat them raw in the field (It’s highly recommended that you wash the edible parts before eating.)
Cattails are an easy and efficient way to get food without expending a lot of time and energy. Coming across cattails is perfect for any survival situation. Finding water is also crucial to your survival, and in a stressful situation, when you find it, you might discover an overlooked source of food and medicine!
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