Cattails In The Kitchen – Tips For Using Edible Parts Of A Cattail

By: Amy Grant

Have you ever looked at a stand of cattails and wondered is the cattail plant edible? Using edible parts of a cattail in the kitchen is nothing new, except maybe the kitchen part. Native Americans routinely harvested the cattail plant for use as tinder, diaper material, and, yes, food. Cattail starch has even been found on Paleolithic grinding stones dating back tens of thousands of years. So what parts of cattail are edible and how do you use cattails in the kitchen?

What Parts of Cattail are Edible?

Cattails are incredibly unique looking plants and, in fact, are actually grasses. There are dozens of species found growing in the Northern Hemisphere and Australia with the largest and most common being Typha latifolia. They can be found in some marshy areas in such proliferation it’s no wonder that ancient man discovered that the cattail plant is edible.

Many parts of these tall, reedy plants can be ingested. Each cattail has both male and female flowers on the same stalk. The male flower is at the top and the female is below. Once the male has released all of its pollen, it dries up and drops to the ground, leaving the female flower atop the stalk. The female flower looks much like a fuzzy hotdog on a stick and is commonly seen in dried flower arrangements, but that isn’t all it’s useful for.

Before the male pollinates the female in the spring, the pollen can be collected and used in combination with traditional flour to make pancakes or muffins. The cattail pollen is a great source of protein.

The female flower is green prior to pollination and at this juncture can be harvested, cooked and eaten with butter, sort of a marsh corn on the cob. The green flowers can also be used in soups or frittatas or even made into cattail flower refrigerator pickles.

Additional Edible Parts of Cattail Plants

Young cattail shoots and roots are also edible parts of cattail plants. The young shoots are found once the outer leaves are stripped and can then be used stir fried or sautéed. They are referred to as Cossack asparagus, although the tender, white shoots taste more like cucumbers.

The tough, fibrous roots can also be harvested. They are then dried and ground into flour or boiled down with water to separate the starch. The starch is then used much like corn starch to thicken gravies and sauces. Care should be taken when using the edible root parts of a cattail, however. They act as a filtration system for the plant and if in polluted water, will absorb those pollutants which could then be passed along to you as you ingest them.

All in all, cattails may be the perfect survival food. They are also easy to harvest and a supply can be laid aside for later use as well as for medicinal purposes, clothing and shelter – altogether a truly remarkable plant.

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Cattail Typha latifolia

For comprehensive information (e.g. nutrition, medicinal values, recipes, history, harvesting tips, etc.) please check out our Cattail PDF magazine.

The cattail is one of the most important and most common wild foods that also boast a variety of uses at different times of the year. Cattails (aka bulrushes) can be used to make mats, baskets, and the cigar-shaped head can even be used as packing material. Dipping the head in oil or fat, they can be used as torches. Aboriginals used the roots to make flour (high in protein and carbohydrates) and the fluffy wool of the head was used as diapers because of its softness and absorbency. The fluffy wool is similar to down and can be used as insulation in clothing, pillows, mattresses, quilts, and life jackets. These “cigar-heads” are also excellent fire started. The tight heads are often dry inside even after a heavy rain, making this essential survival tinder. Inside the stalks of fresh shoots is tasty food that can be eaten as is, sautéed or tossed into a stir fry.

Distinguishing Features

You can easily recognize a cattail it has a brown cigar-shaped head that stands atop a very long, stout stalk. Young shoots first emerge in spring and once fertilized, the female flowers transform into the familiar brown "cigars" also called candlewicks that consist of thousands of tiny developing seeds.


The cattail flower has two parts, a female and male cigar-shaped brown formation near top of stem made up of tiny, densely-packed pistillate (female) flowers. The thin yellow spike extending above female part is the staminate (male) flowers. Both male and female flowers are visible May-July. These brown flower heads open in early fall, letting its fluffy seeds emerge.


Leaves are basal, erect, linear, flat, D-shaped in cross section 10mm to 20mm wide and 1 to 3 metres in length 12-16 leaves arise from each vegetative shoot. Linear leaves are thick, ribbon-like structures and are pale grayish-green in colour.


Cattails stand erect and vary between 1.5 to 3 metres tall.


Open wet areas, wet thickets, swamps, ditches, and moist fields.

Edible Parts

The lower parts of the leaves can be used in a salad the young stems can be eaten raw or boiled the young flowers (cattails) can be roasted. Yellow pollen (appears mid-summer) of the cattail can be added to pancakes for added nutrients. Shake the pollen into a paper bag and use it as a thickener in soups and stews or mix it with flour for some great tasting bread. The root can be dried and pounded to make nutritious flour. Young shoots can be prepared like asparagus but requires longer cooking time to make them tender. Added to soup towards the end of cooking, they retain a refreshing crunchiness. They're superb in stir-fry dishes and excellent in virtually any context.

The Cattail - Best Of The Wild Edible Plants

Which is the best of? the best wild edible plants? That depends on whether you are collecting them for a tasty meal, or as a matter of life or death. It also depends on the season and where you are. But despite all these qualifications, there is one that stands out as especially important in North America.

The common cattail (typha latifolia - and a few other species) is one of the first of the wild edible plants that all hikers should familiarize themselves with. It not only has several edible parts, but there is some part of the plant that can be harvested for food during any season. In addition, it has other uses as well.

In the spring you can find a cattail swamp and cut the fresh tips of the plants from the mud. Rinse them in some safe water and they are edible either raw or cooked. Once you know the plant, identifying the new shoots is no problem, The stalks and dried flower heads of the old plants are always around.

In the summer you can first harvest the tender stems. The lower several inches will be white and ready to eat. If you pull slowly, they will often come loose at the base. Raw, they taste something like cucumber. Cooked, the taste is more like corn. Later, the green flower heads can be cooked and eaten like corn-on-the-cob.

By mid-summer the yellow pollen will be falling from the spike atop the flower heads, and can be shaken into a paper bag to use in thickening soups or even mixed with flour for making bread.

In the fall? you can still locate the cattail by the old stalks and dig up the rope-like roots that criss-cross the swamps. Clean these, mash them in water and let the mix sit for a few hours. What you'll get when you pour off the water is a gooey mass of starch at the bottom of the container. This can be used to make a bread of sorts, or just put into emergency soups.

In the winter you can get the roots, just as in the fall, provided the water or mud isn't frozen. Sometimes you can dig into the muck and find fresh new tips of the plants to eat as well. This is especially true as you get closer to spring.

New plant tips, tender parts of the stalks, flower heads, pollen, and roots - five edible parts, and at least one available in each season. But that's not all. The "fluff" of the mature flower heads was once used to stuff life jackets, and is still perfect as an emergency insulation. If you are lost and without sufficient clothing, you can fill your jacket with it. Use it to make a warm mattress as well.

Cattail flower head fluff is also very flammable. Break open a mature flower head (available almost any time of the year) and make a pile of it. Then strike a match to it, or even a good spark, and it will burst into flame. The tight heads are often dry inside even after a heavy rain, making this a great survival tinder.

The leaves are long and flat, which makes them easy to weave into simple mats for sitting on. These mats can be used to serve food too, or as a barrier between you and the ground in an emergency shelter. For many centuries they were also woven into baskets and other containers. The stems were used for weaving and other purposes as well.

The common cattail is not only one of the best wild edible plants, but one of the best wilderness plants to know for many other purposes. How many other plant have five edible parts and several parts that are useful for a variety of survival needs? Best of all is the fact that they can be found in wet places across North America. Hikers, backpackers and others who spend time in the wilderness should get to know the cattail before all other plants.

The Historic Uses of Common Cattail

Common cattail has a rich history of use within Native American groups throughout North America. It was used in many varying forms, from spiritual purposes where it was involved in ceremonies. To food preparation and as a building material. The young shoots and flower stalks were prepared as a vegetable, and the rhizomes, with their similarity to potatoes, were also cooked and used within many meals. The pollen was also collected, and used often within cooking. Whilst the rhizomes can also be dried and ground into a flour.

As well as food preparation, the broad leaves and fluffy seed heads of common cattail were utilised too. Unique and specialised woven items were created by different Native American groups, from baskets and ropes, to mats and door coverings. Whereas the downy seed heads could be used as bedding or tinder. It’s an amazingly abundant and sustainable resource that was used in its entirety.

Common Cattail Downy Seeds | Photo by AnRo0002 on Wikimedia Commons

Today, common cattail is not commonly foraged, however many people value its history and past usage among Native Americans. The plant is also still greatly relied upon by wildlife. Geese and moose graze upon the young shoots in spring. And the soft, downy seed heads are also often collected by small birds as nesting begins in early spring.

Identifying the Plant

The leaves of the cattail are flat, on long rushes. The head of the cattail resembles a corn dog. When the head ripens, the interior is filled with a cotton-like fiber that contains the seeds. The fluff around the seeds is very useful to make poultices and absorb moisture.

Beware of Iris and Other Poisonous Plants That Share Waterlines!

If you are gathering the young shoots in the spring, you will need to be able to identify the cattail shoots from other water plants that share the waterline. Some wild irises look very similar to cattails and are very poisonous if eaten. As such, it's vitally important to do your thorough research and be extremely cautious.


  • 1 Description
  • 2 General ecology
  • 3 Accepted species and natural hybrids
  • 4 Uses
    • 4.1 Culinary
    • 4.2 Agriculture
    • 4.3 Building material
    • 4.4 Paper
    • 4.5 Fiber
    • 4.6 Biofuel
    • 4.7 Other
  • 5 References
  • 6 External links

Typha are aquatic or semi-aquatic, rhizomatous, herbaceous perennial plants. [5] : 925 The leaves are glabrous (hairless), linear, alternate and mostly basal on a simple, jointless stem that bears the flowering spikes. The plants are monoecious, with unisexual flowers that develop in dense racemes. The numerous male flowers form a narrow spike at the top of the vertical stem. Each male (staminate) flower is reduced to a pair of stamens and hairs, and withers once the pollen is shed. Large numbers of tiny female flowers form a dense, sausage-shaped spike on the stem below the male spike. In larger species this can be up to 30 centimetres (12 in) long and 1 to 4 centimetres (0.4 to 2 in) thick. The seeds are minute, 0.2 millimetres (0.008 in) long, and attached to fine hairs. When ripe, the heads disintegrate into a cottony fluff from which the seeds disperse by wind.

Typha are often among the first wetland plants to colonize areas of newly exposed wet mud, with their abundant wind-dispersed seeds. Buried seeds can survive in the soil for long periods of time. [6] They germinate best with sunlight and fluctuating temperatures, which is typical of many wetland plants that regenerate on mud flats. [7] The plants also spread by rhizomes, forming large, interconnected stands.

Typha are considered to be dominant competitors in wetlands in many areas, and they often exclude other plants with their dense canopy. [8] In the bays of the Great Lakes, for example, they are among the most abundant wetland plants. Different species of cattails are adapted to different water depths. [9]

Well-developed aerenchyma make the plants tolerant of submersion. Even the dead stalks are capable of transmitting oxygen to the rooting zone.

Although Typha are native wetland plants, they can be aggressive in their competition with other native species. [10] They have been problematic in many regions in North America, from the Great Lakes to the Everglades. [8] Native sedges are displaced and wet meadows shrink, likely as a response to altered hydrology of the wetlands and increased nutrient levels. An introduced or hybrid species may be contributing to the problem. [11] Control is difficult. The most successful strategy appears to be mowing or burning to remove the aerenchymous stalks, followed by prolonged flooding. [12] It may be more important to prevent invasion by preserving water level fluctuations, including periods of drought, and to maintain infertile conditions. [8]

Typha are frequently eaten by wetland mammals such as muskrats, which also use them to construct feeding platforms and dens, thereby also providing nesting and resting places for waterfowl. [13]

The following names are currently accepted: [14]


Whether the zombie apocalypse has hit or you get lost going for a leisurely hike through the lush forests of the pacific northwest knowing what local native plants are edible, and where to find them can be a real life-saver. Fortunately for Pacific Northwesters, there’s an abundance of great foodstuffs just about everywhere you look, here are just a few of them:

1. Agoseris

Native to the western half of the united states, this dandelion look-alike is also edible and can be found on mountain slopes and grassy hills all across the Pacific Northwest. Common varieties include Orange agoseris and Short-beaked agoseris. Both the flowers and leaves are edible raw and make an easy side-of-the-trail snack. The sap from leaves and stems can also be collected, and when dried can be chewed or eaten like gum.

2. Dandelion

Chances are, you’ve been trying to get rid of these horrid monstrosities that keep taking over your back yard, popping in through cracks on the sidewalk, and sneaking into your garden just about everywhere– maybe even spraying them with herbicides. STOP!

Not only are these “weeds” edible and tasty, but they’re highly nutritious as well! They’re a great source of calcium, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. Believe it or not, one serving of Dandelion greens has as much calcium as half a cup of milk! The entire plant is edible raw, but it’s often recommended to boil older leaves and roots (in 2 changes of water) with a pinch of baking soda. Roots seem to taste best in the spring and fall, peeled and boiled (dont forget 2 changes of water and a pinch of baking soda) or even roasted and ground as a coffee substitute. It’s also becoming more common to find young dandelion leaves in fancy salad green mixes in grocery stores.

Nature’s Hotdog-on-a-stick! Well, not exactly, but many parts of Cattail plants are edible. Native to most parts of the united states, the white inner part of the shoots is edible raw and pollen can be collected and used as flour. The roots are also edible, but really starchy so it’s advised to strain out the fibers and wash out the starch by boiling with many changes of water. Cattail seeds can also be eaten. Cattails are commonly found near lakes and ponds or near wetlands.

WARNING: To avoid mix-ups, stick to mature plants. You really don’t want to mistake members of the Iris family with young cattail shoots, because the results can be fatal.

4. Miner’s Lettuce

Miner’s lettuce is native to the western half of the united states and typically grows in shady moist areas like forests and fields. The great thing about this plant is not only is it abundant and easy to identify, but the entire plant is edible raw! Just yank out of the ground and chow down!

Found all along the the coastal regions of the Pacific Northwest in saltwater marshes and salty soil near tide-lines, Pickleweed gets it’s name from it’s salty taste. You can eat it raw, but the flavor is better when cooked and because of it’s salty taste, it makes a great additive to whatever you’re cooking. Pickleweed is best before it flowers.

When gathering wild food sources it’s always best to have conservation in mind. Fortunately, this plant makes it easy! If you pinch off the top half of the stem, it’ll grow back a new shoot!

Next time you’re out exploring your favorite corner of the Pacific Northwest, look out for these potential food sources, they may come in handy!

Watch the video: Wild Edibles: Fried Cattail root

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