This family of plants does a great service to mankind. They live in wet, swampy areas and are very effective at removing toxins from the environment. Cattails have the ability to consume pollutants from the water and purify it; they are not the only plant to do so, but none do it as efficiently. Cattails are also credited with transforming marshland into grassland, opening up new areas for human habitation.
Cattails provide a favorable environment for a multitude of creatures: insects, birds, amphibians, reptiles and rodents can all be seen living among cattails. Many species of birds, especially waterfowl, like to nest among a clump of cattail stalks. Amphibians often use the plants for coverage and as a place to deposit their eggs. Songbirds will use the fluffy down from the flowers in building their nests. The underwater parts of the plant are eaten by some types of turtles and fish, and the roots are eaten by muskrats. These plants can grow in a variety of climates, from the ocean to the mountains, the deserts, the plains, and everywhere in between. Excessive heat or cold does not bother them.
We stay away from using the taller, native varieties in liner-based ponds because the roots can become problematic. The strong roots of cattails, especially the broadleaf variety, have the ability to penetrate a liner and cause leaks. The shorter varieties of cattails, varieties that aren’t found here growing in the wild, are less aggressive and are thus better suited for keeping in backyard ponds. These types include the dwarfs and miniatures, they are easier to control in the confines of a pond or wetland filtration system.
Cattails are useful beyond just filtering water. Virtually every part of the plant is edible at some point in its growth cycle. Starting at the bottom are thick roots called rhizomes, which are more like modified underground stems. These rhizomes contain an edible starch. In fact, they can create more starch per acre than potatoes or rice! If you dig up a rhizome, clean it, and cut it in half, you will discover that there are two circles of tissue in the cross section, much like you would see in a carrot. The inner circle contains the bulk of the starch. To consume, peel it down to the inner core and chew it. The starch can also be extracted mechanically, and can be used in place of flour in your recipes.
Next is the stem, which is delicious. This is best collected in the spring when the plant is pushing up its new leaves. Grab the middle leaves in a new shoot that is coming up and pull straight up. It will break off down by the rhizome. The white portion of the shoot is what you want, it is both tender and delicious. Start chomping from the bottom end and work your way up to the leaves until it gets stringy, then grab another!
The next edible parts are the flowers. Cattail is monoecious, which means it has the male and female flowers on the same plant. You will recognize these as the brown cylindrical part at the top of the plant, (the 'punk’) with the spike on the end. The brown part that looks like a hot dog is the female flower, and the spike on top is what remains of the male flower. In late spring/early summer these flowers start to form as two green ‘fingers’. When they get about 1/2" to 3/4" in diameter they can be eaten raw or cooked like corn on the cob with garlic and butter. If you wait a little longer, you will notice the male flower on top will begin to get wrinkled or wavy, and it will release yellow pollen when you touch it. This pollen can be collected and used as a flour substitute or as a thickener. It is high in protein, has an appealing appearance, and is very tasty.
The down has a variety of uses. Its extreme buoyancy lends it well for use as stuffing in floatation devices. Before synthetic foam was widely available, cattail down was used in life-jackets. It is an effective insulator, and can be stuffed between two shirts to make an emergency down jacket. The natives often used it for bedding; rustic pillows, blankets and mattresses can all be created with this resourceful material.
Cattail is a fascinating and versatile plant, and while it may be an annoyance to some pond owners, it is one of the unsung heroes of the plant kingdom.