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Wild edibles: Cattails

Last year we introduced the idea of Nature In Place as a way to explore and deepen our connection to nature while keeping safe and staying home during the pandemic. More than a year later, we’re starting to see hopeful numbers: vaccinations are up and hospitalizations are down. But it’s still important that we protect the most vulnerable in our communities by masking, distancing and staying close to home when possible. 

In that spirit, we want to help you discover the satisfaction of a meal from the local wild, perhaps even from your own yard. Our new Wild Edibles blog series will introduce you to a host of wild-grown edible plants and talk about the importance of proper identification, sustainability and etiquette when bringing them to your table. 

This week Extension educator Jeff Jackson starts us off with his memories of eating wild edibles and how you can add cattails to your diet, and Extension educator Shirley Nordrum teaches us the importance of cattails to the Ojibwe people.

No stranger to wild foods

I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, and as the son of a botanist, I had many opportunities to try wild edible foods. My Dad would use my siblings and me as guinea pigs to try out new recipes before he introduced them to his biology students at North Hennepin Community College. Some of the memorable wild plants we ate were giant puffballs fried in butter (delicious!) and tea made from sumac berries. The enjoyment of edible wild foods came both from time spent with family gathering them and the adventure of trying new foods.

One of my favorite wild edible foods is cattails. When I would tell my childhood friends that my family ate cattails, they were shocked, as they could only think of the brown fluffy flower heads seen in the fall. Those are not edible, but they make a good emergency fire starter!

My Dad used to call cattails “nature’s supermarket” because so many parts of them are edible. Please read below for a description of the many edible parts of the cattail plant. Note that both broad-leaf cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaf cattail (Typha angustifolia) plants are edible. The narrow-leaf cattail is considered invasive in Minnesota, so please be careful to not transfer the roots or seeds to new sites.

Finding and identifying cattails

Cattails are semi-aquatic, and they form dense stands in wet, often mucky soils. They are found in marshes, swamps, ditches, and on the edges of rivers and ponds. They typically grow 3-7 feet tall. Their long blade-like leaves are distinctive, as well as their stiff flower stalks which bloom from May-July. Each flower stalk has a female and male flower part, separated by a gap. The male flower part is the source of edible pollen. The male flowers disperse after blooming, leaving the female flower to develop into the distinctive brown head (the “cat tail”).

Harvesting and preparing cattails

Harvest cattails spring through fall from clean water and soil sources, free of pesticides. Wear rubber boots or waders while harvesting.

Cattails are truly “nature’s supermarket.” Young shoots can be prepared like asparagus, but require a longer cooking time to make them tender. The young stems can be eaten raw or boiled. The lower parts of the leaves can be used in salads. The young flowers can be boiled, covered in butter, and eaten like corn on the cob. In mid-summer, the yellow pollen from the male flowers can be added to pancakes, or mixed with flour to make delicious bread. The cleaned roots can be boiled, baked, or broiled. The roots can also be dried and pounded into a nutritious flour. Note that it’s best to harvest the roots in the fall. 

Besides food, cattails have other great uses. The leaves may be woven into mats, seats and baskets. The brown flower heads can be dipped in oil or fat and used as torches. Because the insides of the tight brown flower heads stay dry even in heavy rain, pull them apart and use the dry fluffy seeds as a survival tinder.

CAUTION: Gathering of wild products should be done safely and legally. Never harvest products on roadsides or other locations where pesticides may be used.

Be certain you have permission before harvesting wild products. Many products can be harvested on publics lands but require a permit or specific use; make sure you are familiar with the policies for the products you harvest. Always respect private property.

Indigenous philosophy

In Ojibwe, apakwe or cattails serve many uses. The Ojibwe name is referring to one of those uses—apakwe means to cover a lodge. Cattails were primarily used to cover the walls and roofs of temporary seasonal camp lodges. The leaves are also woven into mats to serve as floor coverings or placemats for serving food. 

There is no part of the cattail that does not serve a function. Stems are delicious when young and tender. Roots are tuberous and provide food for the table as do young flower heads. Cattail pollen mixed with ground corn adds extra nutrition as well as a nutty flavor to flour and massa. Cattails also have numerous medicinal qualities, in particular the gelatinous substance between the leaves has antiseptic, coagulant and pain relieving attributes. The flowerhead fluff is an excellent insulator for shelters as well as your boots and mittens, it serves as a fire starter or torch, and can soften the area you bed down on. Cattail is a great provider.

Jeff Jackson and Shirley Nordrum, Extension educators

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