You’ve probably seen cattails — Typha latifolia — if you’ve spent much time around slow-moving water in Idaho. You can find some right now in draws in the foothills.
Until I was recently rereading “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer, I didn’t know how many uses Indigneous peoples have for cattails, which fall under the category of bulrush plants.
Old Testament trivia sidenote: in the Book of Exodus, the infant Moses is said to have been found in an “ark of bulrushes,” a baby-sized boat made of woven paper reed, a type of bulrush.
So cattails and paper reeds are cousins, and they share an ability to be woven. But here are some other uses of cattails:
- Cattail leaves can be peeled back and woven to create a wigwam. In rain, they saturate with water and don’t let air or water inside the shelter. In dry environments, they contract and allow air movement inside.
- Those same leaves can also be split into finer and finer strands — even fine enough to use as thread.
- Once you peel back the leaves, a gel substance at the plant’s center is antimicrobial and can also be used like aloe vera to treat sunburns.
- Rhizomes — stems that are underground shoots — have surprising uses and can be roasted (apparently they taste kind of like potatoes), ground into a paste, or dried into a flour.
- At the center of the leaves, there’s a raw pith that can be eaten, and is also known as Cossacks’ asparagus.
- The brown ends at the tops of cattail stalks that look like hot dogs are actually densely-packed flowers, and produce a protein-rich pollen that can be made into dough.
- When dried, those tips can also be torn into cotton-like material that Indigenous peoples have used as insulation and bedding for centuries.
- Especially when dipped in fat, these dried flowers also make a great torch or kindling.
So next time you see this intriguing but almost ubiquitous plant, give it another look — it just might surprise you.