We had been hiking many dry miles through the Southern Utah desert, Escalante wilderness area. Our water supply low, several of us near heat exhaustion, and one hundred degrees of blistering sun radiating off the slick rock and sandstone floor, as well as beating down on our heads, the tensions beginning to run high. Images of life slipping away, bodies disintegrating for wont of liquids, merging with red and yellow sands, turkey vultures circling overhead…
As we traipsed slowly up and down saddles and benches, old and dry flood watercourses, dusty creek beds and playas, around crumbling sandstone monuments, the rich and colorful desert landscape the only attraction holding one’s attention above physical pain and thirst, our lead man spotted a stand of small brown tails, sticking straight up, waving in the hot wind. Could it be? Cattails? Here? In the middle of this parched land? But, cattails grow only in water, or at least where the water table is close to the surface. Electricity ran through the group. We took off sprinting, arms in the air, relieved. An oasis in the desert! This was no mirage…
Cattail (Typha spp) has been referred to many times as a wilderness supermarket, or the supermarket of the swamp. It’s edible, medicinal, practical and craft uses can never be exhausted by any backwoods traveler. As an all year round food source it is unmatched. A stand of cattails contains ten times the starch of an equal weight of potatoes.
A cattail grows up to twelve feet tall. It’s brown, sausage shaped flower spike and narrow parallel leaves are a familiar sight at pond and swamp edges. The flower spike is actually a mass of hundreds of tiny flowers. Green in spring, by summer’s end it turns its characteristic brown, giving the appearance of a cat’s tail. In the fall and winter the tiny flowers, gone to seed, break up into a fluffy mass of down, some released to the wind. Female and male flowers are found on the same plant. During the summer the stamens produce golden yellow pollen. The rootstocks are up to one inch thick and form an interweaving mat below the water’s surface. Many brown seed heads remain on the stalks over winter because of the cattail moth caterpillar which feeds on the seeds all summer long and, as autumn winds come, the caterpillars lay down a trail of silk that binds the tiny seeds in place, their winter food source intact. The caterpillars are white and brown striped and can be viewed all winter. Before pupating, some of the caterpillars are parasitized by wasps. In the spring either wasps or moths emerge. Another small and interesting creature that visits the cattail regularly is the snout beetle.
Other animals using cattails as food source are geese (blue, Canada, snow, tule), and muskrat and mink that eat the rootstocks (trappers here this!). Green-winged teal and sandpiper eat the seeds. Marsh wren, redwing and yellow-headed blackbird shelter and nest in cattail stands.
Cattails are found in fresh and brackish marshes, shallow water, and on the sides of highways where large puddles and drainage ditches form. They have an affinity for growing next to phragmites reeds, bulrush, and other water loving plants. I have often had to bushwack through thick stands of willow or the prolific tamarisk (especially in the Southwest) to get at these delectable treasures. From New Your to Oregon, Canada and Mexico, this plant is a godsend. One can locate cattails all winter long as many of the brown heads (or tails) remain.
In early spring the young shoots, just peaking above the water’s surface, are easily picked, peeled, cooked, or eaten raw. All through the spring the developing stalks are prepared the same way. The young, green flower heads are harvested, boiled and eaten like corn on the cob, or fermented into luscious pickles. The pollen that forms on the spikes in early summer is shaken into a bag. It is mixed with other flours (made from any number of plants), added to breads, muffins, and pancakes, and is a rich protein and vitamin source. All through the winter the rootstocks are picked, mashed, rinsed, dried and ground into nutritious flour.
As a first aid remedy and plant medicine the cattail possesses abundant healing properties. I have used the fresh, pounded root directly as a poultice for infections, broken suppurating blisters, and bee and wasp stings, with much success. The cattail has extraordinary drawing powers. Tape or tie the poultice in place overnight. Replace the following day. In most cases a plant like cattail is soothing for burns, inflammations, boils, wounds, and any number of external ailments. At the base of the green leaf is found a sticky substance that is antiseptic, coagulant, and even a bit numbing, used for cuts and abrasions. One can boil the leaves into a tea for an external skin wash. Use the starchy, mashed root as toothpaste, the pollen for hair conditioner. Drink root flour in a cup of hot water or eat the young flower heads to bind diarrhea and dysentery. The fuzz from the mature female flower heads is applied to scalds and burns, and is placed next to baby’s skin inside diapers to prevent irritation and help soak up urine.
The pollen is hemostatic and astringent. It is placed on a cut to stop bleeding or taken internally for internal bleeding, menstrual pain, chest and heart pains, postpartum abdominal pain, and many forms of blood stagnation. Mix with honey (which is in itself a superior substance applied to burns, bruises and cuts) and apply to bruises, sores, or swellings. The pollen is also mildly diuretic (clears excess fluids from the body) and emenagogue (promotes menstruation).
Late in autumn, when the seed heads begin to burst, collect the soft downy fluff. It makes an excellent insulation inside clothing, shoes, socks, gloves, hats. Stuff a sack and make a comfortable pillow, mattress, or baby bed. Line containers to protect precious articles. Be creative!
The down makes an excellent tinder addition. When starting a fire with bow or hand drill, or flint and steel, one needs to create a nest of tinder, taken from plant fibers or tree bark. Line the interior of the nest with cattail down and drop the hot coal, formed during the fire making process, into the down. It will hold the coal and burn slowly, thus creating more heat and easier ignition.
Dry stalks of cattail are used for the hand drill, and as arrow shafts with added hardwood nock and foreshaft (into which an arrowhead of stone, bone, metal or hardwood is inserted).
The leaves of the cattail are used for thatching material, basketry weavers, cordage, and to make dolls, animal figures and toys.
In weaving baskets the cattail leaves’ flatness is superb for plaited styles. For plaited mats, skirts, sandals, doors for shelters, insulation, blankets and mattresses. The long leaves reach eight to ten feet by August or September. The leaves are twisted, bound, corded, or braided. The stalk is also harvested, split, and utilized the same way.
Creating cattail dolls and animal figures is a joyful experience for children (and adults!). Indian children made duck figures to set on water and blow them about.
One can dip the brown seed head of a dry stalk into animal fat or oil and light it as a torch. It will burn for a considerable time.
As I sit here and write and remember, a special fondness for the incredible bounty of the natural world arises in me. In awe, I sit before a cattail and give thanks…
It is late autumn in the Northeast. The leaves have turned. A brilliant blast of oranges, yellows, purples, reds, flames of countless hues, still dots the landscape. We are leisurely hiking on an old deer trail worn into a v shape, from all appearances more than a hundred years old. Where does it lead? We move on… To Water! Of course, to water! On the pond edge hundreds of cattails wave in the cool autumn breeze, the cottony down waiting to explode. We look at one another, and without saying a word, our eyes say, “Why wait?” Laughing, screaming, running, jumping, we plunge into the pond and swat gleefully as the fluffy tails. Ahh!! Sweet pandemonium reigns. It is a cattail snowstorm! And pure joy…