Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Incredible Cattail

I came across this ten year old article on cattails by Kevin Duffy that is well worth sharing. As I have posted, we are searching for a high yield method of producing ethanol and biofuels in general.

We have seen the use of subsidies to promote the growing of corn for making ethanol. Yet a crop yield of three to four tons or so per acre is about as good as it gets. The ten to fifteen tons of waste material is not yet a credible feedstock, even though the promoters are talking the talk.

Potatoes, which I have recently posted on, are good for yields of around fifteen tons per acre, making it the star of our agricultural sources of ethanol feedstock, although I do not know if anyone has started using them. They are probably waiting for a subsidy. In any event, when the moisture is deducted the dry weight is a lot less than the original and likely approaches five tons or much the same value as corn.

Our best guess, when it comes to real oil yields from algae is also around five tons per acre with strong potential for increasing into the teens if we are prepared to build massive greenhouse facilities.

It is becoming obvious that we need something a lot better than what we have here if we hope to produce a great deal of the ethanol that we need.

And then I came across this article on the cattail that we all know and have ignored. It turns out that the yield per acre is an astounding 140 tons of rhizomes. It also almost certainly produces another thirty tons or so of reeds that also might be used. The dry weight of this bounty is thirty two tons, easily ten times the competition.

It is ninety percent starch making it an easy fit into the ethanol industry. So far it is the only plant based protocol able to deliver this much ethanol feedstock. That is twice to three times as much by weight of its nearest cellulose crop of corn stover or bagasse.

Therefore, if the regulators have any sense, they will tailor their pro ethanol regime around the production of starch and that will catch any high starch production protocol like this.

The bonus here is that the horticulture of the cattail will rarely compete directly with other crops. We are actually looking to develop water logged paddies similar to rice culture and we will likely be looking at valley bottoms and bogs long since ruined for agriculture, if ever attempted.

The article describes the various products that can be produced and have been produced in the past. The plant has never been exploited properly because it originally needed an inconvenient amount of hand labor compared to other options. We can over come that today and if we domesticate it properly we will be able to also produce a high quality seed. Right now the seed is too small to be of much value.

As reported in the article, the plant is edible, particularly as a spring vegetable. Therefore a grower can expect to produce seasonal products through the year that may add commercial value. The markets are yet to be established but it seems fairly straight forward.

The incredible cattail

The super Wal-Mart of the swamp
By Kevin F. Duffy

I can think of no other North American plant that is more useful than the cattail. This wonderful plant is a virtual gold mine of survival utility. It is a four-season food, medicinal, and utility plant. What other plant can boast eight food products, three medicinals, and at least 12 other functional uses?

The Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) and its brethren Narrowleaf Cattail (Typha angustifolia), Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis), and Blue Cattail (Typha Glauca), have representatives found throughout North America and most of the world. While living in Northern Japan, I spent many chilly mornings in snow storms among miles of cattails while duck hunting. Cattail is a member of the grass family, Gramineae, as are rice, corn, wheat, oats, barley, and rye, just to mention a few. Of the 15 most commonly consumed domesticated plant foods, 10 are grasses. However, of more than 1300 wild grasses, none holds a loftier position as a survival food than cattail. Just about any place you can find year-round standing water or wet soil, you can usually find cattails.

In Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus, his chapter on cattails is titled “Supermarket of the Swamp.” As you will see, this title aptly applies to the cattail. However, due to its medicinal and utilitarian uses, we may want to mentally modify the title to “Super Wal-Mart of the Swamp.”


Cattails are readily identified by the characteristic brown seed head. There are some poisonous look-alikes that may be mistaken for cattail, but none of these look-alikes possess the brown seed head.

Blue Flag (Iris versicolor) and Yellow Flag (Iris pseudoacorus) and other members of the iris family all possess the cattail-like leaves, but none possesses the brown seed head. All members of the Iris family are poisonous. Another look-alike which is not poisonous, but whose leaves look more like cattail than iris is the Sweet Flag (Acorus calumus). Sweet Flag has a very pleasant spicy, sweet aroma when the leaves are bruised. It also does not posses the brown seed head. Neither the irises nor cattail has the sweet, spicy aroma. I have seen large stands of cattails and sweet flag growing side by side. As with all wild edibles, positive identification is essential. If you are not sure, do not eat it.

Corms, shoots, and spikes

In just about any survival situation, whether self-imposed or not, one of the first plants I look for is the cattail. As a food plant, cattails are outstanding and offer a variety of food products according to the season. In early spring, dig up the roots to locate the small pointed shoots called corms. These can be removed, peeled, and eaten, added to other spring greens for a salad, or cooked in stews or alone as a pot herb. As the plant growth progresses to where the shoots reach a height of two to three feet above the water, peel and eat like the corms, or sauté. This food product is also known as “Cossack Asparagus” due to the Russians’ fondness for it.

In late spring to early summer, some of my favorite food products come into fruition on the cattail. Soon after these shoots become available, the green female bloom spikes and the male pollen spikes begin to emerge. These spikes can be found in the center of the plant and form a cylindrical projection that can only be detected when you’re close to the plant. Peel back the leaves in the same way you would shuck corn, and both the male portion above and the female below can be seen. The female portion will later develop into the familiar brown “cattail” seed head from which the plant’s name is derived. The male portion will atrophy into a small dried twig that may easily break off the top of the seed head. Both the male and female pollen spikes can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob, and both are delicious. The male portion provides a bigger meal at this stage. They have a flavor that is corn-like, but distinct from corn. I cannot imagine anyone finding the flavor objectionable. Both may also be eaten raw.

Pollen and root starch

Later, the male pollen head will begin to develop an abundance of yellow pollen with a talcum powder consistency that can easily be shaken off into any container. Several pounds of this can be collected in less than an hour. The traditional use of this pollen is to substitute for some the flour in pancakes to make cattail pancakes. This also works well with cornbread. Other uses of the pollen include thickeners or flour extenders for breads, cakes, etc.

In late summer to early fall, the tender inner portions of the leaf stalk may still be collected, but the availability of this Cossack Asparagus begins to dwindle, due to the toughening up of the plant. During this period and all the way to spring, the most abundant food product, the root starch, may be harvested. It is so abundant, a study was conducted at the Cattail Research Center of Syracuse University’s Department of Plant Sciences. The chief investigator of the project was Leland Marsh. The reported results were as follows:

Yields are fantastic. Marsh discovered he could harvest 140 tons of rhizomes per acre near Wolcott, NY. That represents something more than 10 times the average yield per acre of potatoes. In terms of dry weight of cattail flour, the 140 tons of roots would yield approximately 32 tons.

To extract the flour or starch from the cattail root, simply collect the roots, wash, and peel them. Next, break up the roots under water. The flour will begin to separate from the fibers. Continue this process until the fibers are all separated and the sweet flour is removed. Remove the fiber and pour off the excess water.

Allow the remaining flour slurry to dry by placing near a fire or using the sun.

Cattail root flour also contains gluten. Gluten is the constituent in wheat flour that allows flour to rise in yeast breads. The Iroquois Indians macerated and boiled the roots to produce a fine syrup, which they used in a corn meal pudding and to sweeten other dishes. Some Indians burned the mature brown seed heads to extract the small seeds from the fluff, which was used to make gruels and added to soups.
Medicinal and other uses

The medicinal uses of cattails include poultices made from the split and bruised roots that can be applied to cuts, wounds, burns, stings, and bruises. The ash of the burned cattail leaves can be used as an antiseptic or styptic for wounds. A small drop of a honey-like excretion, often found near the base of the plant, can be used as an antiseptic for small wounds and toothaches.

The utility of this cattail is limited only by your imagination. The dried stalks can be used for hand drills and arrow shafts. The seed heads and dried leaves can be used as tinder. The seed head fluff can be used for pillow and bedding stuffing or as a down-like insulation in clothing. The leaves can be used for construction of shelters or for woven seats and backs of chairs, which has been a traditional use for hundreds of years.

They can be woven into baskets, hats, mats, and beds. The dried seed heads attached to their stalks can be dipped into melted animal fat or oil and used as torches.

The next time you see “The Super Wal-Mart of the Swamp,” why don’t you do some shopping?


1. Gibbons, Euell, Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Alan C. Hood and Company, Putney, Vermont; 1962. 303 pp.

2. Harris, B., Eat The Weeds. Barre Publishers, Garre, MA; 1971. 223 pp.


SteveK said...

Cattails are not just a North American plant, they are worldwide. In Africa they clog waterways of every type, contributing to flooding and drought, and providing breeding grounds for many pests. Just their clearance (along with the reeds and water hyacinth that are also pests there and can also be made into ethanol) would greatly alleviate many problems, malaria in particular (I see you have an interest there too- do a search on [Typha malaria] and see how much trouble this resource can be). Harvesting them for food and fuel would solve more. Please pass your information on to every famine relief organization you can think of, and to the sustainability people on AllAfrica.com. Help me turn an enormous problem into an enormous resource.

arclein said...

The power of the cattail comes from its starch and sugar content in the roots. I do not think that is the case with water hyacinth, but suspect that they could also be used for fodder.

Wetland fodder sources have never been exploited to my knowledge, yet some drying and conversion to fermented silage should work well.

Wetlands are mosquito heaven of course. Cattails work where you have a fall frost, allowing drainage and harvest then.

I will let someone else tackle warmer climates.

sizemorej said...

I have eaten cattails in the past and enjoy the flavor. The information I have read says that cattails are also a source of gluten. With the available gluten there seems to be the chance of making meat substitute for vegans. Also the leaves could be dried and used as a media for mushroom production.
For nonfood uses the cattails would actually be the perfect waste water treatment system. Cities such as Atlanta that have water shortages could use artificial wetlands stocked with cat tails as an energy source as well as water recycler.
Another use may be the production of biogas in an ARTI type digester using the roots.