How do I love thee, cattails? Let me count the ways.
I didn’t actually love thee, not at first.
I was just writing this story, see, and in it there’s a young Native woman living all by herself near a stream. And she has a guest come to visit, and I know she’s eating game, but I wondered what she could serve him for a vegetable. Had a vague memory that maybe you could eat cattails. Put down “cattail roots” with an asterixis that let me know I needed to look it up later.
And when I did … boy howdy! My young lady had just hit the jackpot!
According to this article, cattails can provide nearly everything that a human being might need.
First of all, yes, you can eat them.
In spring and summer the young shoots can be picked, stripped of the outer leaves and eaten cooked or as a raw vegetable. The green immature flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Later in the summer months, pollen from the brown mature flowering stalks provide a nutritious flour supplement for cakes and flat breads. During fall and winter when there is no longer any foliage the roots may be boiled down for a starchy broth rich in carbohydrates. Cattail is very low in Saturated Fat. It is a good source of Iron and Phosphorus, and a great source of Fiber, Vitamin K, B6, Calcium, Magnesium, Potassium and Manganese.“Cattail,” by Henry Holly in the The Northwest Forager, ibid
Secondly, first aid. “Ash from the burned leaves [is an] antiseptic,” and the roots and sap have also been used in first aid. Now, my character did not need any first aid, at least not at that point in the story.
Thirdly, shelter. The leaves can be woven to make such things as hats, rain cloaks, baskets, mats, and for rain runoff on a roof. (This is similar to how coconut-palm fronds are used in Southeast Asia.) And – get this! – the “seed fluff” can be used for pillows, bedding, insulation inside moccasins, wound dressing, and even … diapers. Wow! My girl’s little shelter just turned into a palace with a water-shedding roof and a comfortable bed made of a cattail mat over cattail fluff. Bonanza!
Of course, having learned all this stuff, I had to try it. As you know, I’m a Luddite, although most of the time just a pretend one.
We have plenty of cattails here in Idaho. Here is some proof, with cattails growing along an irrigation canal and the mountains in the background:
According to this article, the cattail roots can absorb pollutants in the water. Also, digging up the roots, drying and roasting them, and pounding them into flour sounded like a lot of work for someone who’s only a Luddite part-time. Actually, even digging up the shoots sounds like it would involve getting my feet wet. All in all, the simplest project for a beginning cattail forager sounds like it would be using the seed fluff. Even I can find the seed heads. Here they are:
I cut a few off with my garden clippers, and soon had a small basket full.
That ought to be enough for at least one diaper, right?
Then it was time to pull apart the seed heads. This is easy, though messy.
Luckily, the seed fluff didn’t cause any itchy symptoms. (I guess it wouldn’t be so useful if it did.) In the end, those dozen or so seed heads gave me a pile of fluff that looked like this:
The sewing part only took me about 20 minutes. It would have taken less if I had ironed the cheesecloth first. I still had enough fluff left that I decided to make a small pillow. Out came the scrap cotton, and when the pillow was done, I stuffed it.
The seed fluff really tends to fly up in the air and then stick to stuff (that’s what it’s designed to do, after all). The pillow, once stuffed and pinned shut, ended up looking like this:
I used a lot of tape to get all the cattail lint off it.
And here is the finished product. Not super high, but a definite pillow. We’ll see how long the fluff lasts or whether it compacts a lot over time. Luckily, there is more where that came from!
This has been “researching books and pretending to be a forager” with Jen.