In Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, his chapter on cattails is titled “Supermarket of the Swamp.” As you will see, this title aptly applies to the cattail. However, due to its medicinal and utilitarian uses, we may want to mentally modify the title to “Super Wal-Mart of the Swamp.”
The utility of this cattail is limited only by your imagination. The dried stalks can be used for hand drills and arrow shafts. The seed heads and dried leaves can be used as tinder. The seed head fluff can be used for pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing. The leaves can be used for construction of shelters or for woven seats and backs of chairs, which has been a traditional use for hundreds of years. They can be woven into baskets, hats, mats and beds. The dried seed heads attached to their stalks can be dipped into melted animal fat or oil and used as torches.
I can think of no other North American plant that is more useful than the cattail. This wonderful plant is a virtual ‘gold mine of survival utility’. It is a four-season food, medicinal and utility plant. What other plant can boast eight food products, three medicines and at least 12 other functional uses. Cattails and their associated microorganisms improve water and soil quality. They render organic pollution harmless and fix atmospheric nitrogen, bringing it back into the food chain. They've even been planted along the Nile River to reduce soil salinity.
The cattail is one of the most important and common wild foods, with a variety of uses at different times of the year. Whatever you call it, a stand of cattails is as close as you will get to finding a ‘wild supermarket’.
Once fertilized, the female flowers transform into the familiar brown "cigars” also called candlewicks, punks, ducktails and marsh beetles consisting of thousands of tiny developing seeds. They whiten over the winter after the leaves die, and the cycle repeats.
Cattails grow in dense stands. Like most colonial plants, they arise from rhizomes thick stems, growing in the mud, usually connecting all the stalks.
The cattails every part has uses. It’s easy to harvest, very tasty and highly nutritious. It was a major staple for the American Indians, who found it in such great supply; they didn't need to cultivate it. The settlers missed out when they ignored this great food and destroyed its habitats, instead of cultivating it.
The next time you see “The Super Wal-Mart of the Swamp,” stop and take notice only.