Commonly known as cattails or bullrushes, Typha is a genus of about 30 species of monocotyledonous flowering plants in the family Typhaceae. They are found throughout the world, and are very common throughout North America. They are found in all provinces and territories of Canada and in every state in the USA. They are not native to Hawaii, but have found their way there.
They prefer to grow in wetland habitats. They are often times among the first plants to colonize freshly disturbed mud and banks in wet areas. They can survive prolonged floods, but most varieties will not tolerate being completely dry for extended periods.
Cattails are known by outdoors-man and survivalists as a life saver plant (Green, D. 2011). It is edible all year round and can be found in many marsh habitats. The ‘fluff’ makes a great fire starter as it is very flammable even when damp and it can be used as stuffing for mattresses and pillows. The reeds can be used as a layer of insulation between a person and the ground and can be woven in many useful things from matts to hats, to even rope. The punks can be burned as an insect repellent also.
As far as using them for food outside the life saving realm, the general consensus on when this plant tastes the best is when the new plants start at around the end of April. These new shoots can be eaten raw right out of the field. Just grasp the leaves of the emerging plant where they come up from the lake bottom and pull gently until the tender white stalk comes loose from the base (Churchill, J.E. 1974).
The cattail pollen is also not only edible, but also tastes great. At about mid July shake the tops lightly to dislodge the golden yellow dust into a bag. This pollen can then be mixed into anything you would use flour in from muffins, to bread to pancakes.
As far as medicinal uses, the roots can be used as a poultice for burns cuts and scrapes.
The Typha family is also known for the role of bioremediation plant (Kitsteiner, J. 2013). These plants can help clean and purify water. For this reason it is also great for helping to ‘slow it, sink it, and spread it.’ It is also used to stop erosion in freshwater habitats. People use it to clean grey water and run off. It can be found in the corner of many parks throughout North America where storm water is diverted. It was also used in riparian buffers because of it bioremediation qualities.
There is one important thing to note when considering whether to eat this plants or not and that is be cautious because they are such good bioremediation plants, if they are harvested from a polluted place they can contain toxins.
Yule Gibbons said “for the number of different kinds of foods it produces, there is no plants wild or domesticated which tops the common cattail.” (Gibbons, E. 1962)
Churchill, J. E. (1974). The homesteader’s handbook. Harrisburg, PA: Stackpole Books.
Gibbons, E. (1962). Stalking the wild asparagus. New York: D. McKay.
Green, D. (2011, November). Cattails – A Survival Dinner. Retrieved May 18, 2016, from http://www.eattheweeds.com/cattails-a-survival-dinner/
Kitsteiner, J. (2013, August 19). Permaculture Plants: Cattail, Bulrush, or Reedmace. Retrieved May 17, 2016, from http://tcpermaculture.com/site/2013/08/19/permaculture-plants-cattail-or-bulrush/
Prindel, T. (1994). NativeTech: Cattails. Retrieved May 17, 2016, from http://www.nativetech.org/cattail/cattail.htm