If you’re like me, you’ve never really given the cattail on the edge of your favorite lake or pond much thought. It’s kind of an odd plant, really.
But it has a lot of benefits both to the environment and to us as lovers of the outdoors.
Maybe – if you’re not like me – you already have a strong opinion about cattails. After all, it is an invasive plant that helps turn flowing water into marshland and – over time – into the land.
But whether you love it, hate it or never thought about it, you should know how to use it to your benefit if you need it; especially in an emergency.
A Brief Edible History of Cattail
Cattail hasn’t always been as prevalent in the United States and Canada as it is now.
When the first European settlers arrived, however, Native Americans were already using it in all sorts of ways; including medicinally.
As the country grew, cattails spread North and Eastward in the United States. Many farmers and outdoorsmen learned to use them in new and innovative ways. Ways we’ve mostly forgotten today.
Cattail’s biggest claim to ‘almost’ fame came toward the end of World War Two according to legend. Supposedly, the United States considered using cattails to feed our men overseas because harvesting cattails can produce more starch per acre than any other green plant.
Alas, though, the war ended before the concept was proven or implemented.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, interest in aquaculture and the need for more biodiversity and sustainability as well as less waste in our food supply has revived interest in harvesting cattail for our consumption.
Cattail Uses in Medical Emergencies
First of all, please understand I’m taking some license with the word emergency here. Cattail cannot stop a heart attack or heal a broken leg.
But it does have a number of medicinal qualities you can use if you left your first aid kit at home or need some extra padding in a splint.
The jelly from between the young leaves (most plentiful in the Springtime) can be used as an itch or pain reliever. It has astringent, coagulant, pain-relieving, and antiseptic attributes that can slow or stop bleeding, ease pain, and help clean wounds or scratches.
If you pull up the cattail roots, split them, and mash them a little bit, it will produce a poultice. This poultice acts as an antiseptic and can be used to relieve pain and inflammation in cuts, wounds, burns, stings, and bruises.
The cattail roots and stem can also be used to reduce fever, increase urine flow (diuretic), increase lactation, and treat dysentery.
A cattail’s yellow pollen can be used either externally or internally.
Used externally, the pollen has an anticoagulant effect if it is uncooked. But if you roast it over a slow fire until it’s black, you can use it as a wound dressing to stop bleeding. You can also cook the pollen, in the same manner, you’d cook corn on the cob and use it in a dressing to stop bleeding.
Internally, the pollen can treat urinary problems, angina, menstrual problems, abdominal pain, tapeworms, vomiting of blood, and internal bleeding.
The brown seed down of the cattail can be used to treat diaper rash or provide padding for a splint. You can also use it as kindling to start a fire. Make sure to have other kindling ready to take the flame because the down burns very quickly.
Finally, the ash from burned cattail leaves has an antiseptic and styptic (stops bleeding) quality.
Precautions and Warnings
- Cattails can promote menstrual bleeding. As such, pregnant women should avoid using it.
- Cattails perform a filtering function in nature. They remove harmful pollutants from the water. These pollutants stay in the plant. If you choose to use cattail, make sure to select plants that are in areas where the water is moving around them rather than stagnant.
Survival Bonus: Cattails are Edible
I know we discussed it briefly above, but when it comes to survival and emergency situations, cattail is not just good for medicinal purposes. They also provide a tremendous source of protein and carbohydrates when eaten.
Nearly every part of the cattail plant is edible.
The roots should be cooked before eating. This is the part of the plant that produces all the starch (carbohydrate) that almost made it famous.
The ‘tenders,’ which are the root portion of new growth can be eaten uncooked, however. Just pull them up from the mud, remove several of the outer layers and eat them directly off the stem.
Tenders should be soft and bland. If they have a strong odor, you shouldn’t eat them. Once you reach the tough part of the stalk, don’t eat any further.
The pollen spike at the top is packed with protein. It needs to be boiled for 10-12 minutes before eating.
If you’re interested in finding out more about harvesting and preparing cattails, I found this great series of YouTube videos on it you should check out.
Cattail Plant: Friend or Foe
Hopefully, you’ve learned a few things – maybe even a few useful things – about the cattail plant and how it can help you in a survival or emergency situation while you’re out hunting or fishing.
There’s no doubt the plant can be a nuisance. But if you’re ever in the great outdoors without a proper medical kit or a snack to eat, I hope you remember and apply this information. It truly could be lifesaving in the right situation.