City Cast

What to Know About Cattails

Blake Hunter
Blake Hunter
Posted on November 3, 2022   |   Updated on June 26
Cattails love living together in marshes or on the banks of slow-moving rivers or streams. (Tony Matthews / Getty)

Cattails love living together in marshes or on the banks of slow-moving rivers or streams. (Tony Matthews / Getty)

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.

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