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Helpful Herbs: Cattails

You've certainly seen them filling in marshy areas with waterbirds balancing on their tufted tops, but did you know how useful Cattails can be? It is true that Cattails can be invasive and choke out a healthy pond, but managed well they can be both tasty and healthy for any farmer or forager.

If you have a pond or wetland on your property chances are you have Cattails growing there already. In their natural environment, Cattails grow along the edges of ponds and provide shade and a living area for small fish, frogs, and birds. They filter water flowing into lakes and ponds, keeping the water healthy and clear. Their root systems can help prevent erosion, provide safe nesting areas, and create a windbreak for water animals in winter.

Already established Cattails will need to be controlled from taking over your pond by annual clipping of the plants about 2-3 inches below the surface of the water. Similarly, you can start Cattails from young seedlings planted in the mud around the water's edge, or you can place the plants in clay pots under the water - a system that allows you to control root spread and easily remove of the plant if necessary.

Needless to say, Cattails love it moist and muddy. They thrive in marsh-like conditions, eventually petering out when the water gets too deep. Loving full sun and tolerating some shade, Cattails are perennials in zones 3 to 9. It usually takes a year or two for your Cattails to start growing their distinctive catkins.

Because almost all of the Cattail plant is edible, how to harvest depends on the part that you want to eat. Roots, stalks, and flowers (the distinct catkin) are all tasty treats. Young catkins can be boiled and eaten like corn, and the stalks are comparable to asparagus. You can boil them and enjoy them in a salad or as a side, or even try them fresh. The roots are possibly the most commonly eaten part of the Cattail, and they are prized for their starchy, high-carb qualities. The roots are harvested throughout the year and can be fried up or boiled. Because the roots or rhizomes are so starchy, they can also be dried and made into a very effective alternative to flour.

Since Cattails are so abundant, their history as a resource is rich. Preserved starch from Cattails has been found on grinding stones as old as 30,000 years, indicating that ancient Europeans ground Cattail roots for grains.

Cattails can also help your health in some unexpected ways. Cattail roots are split open and applied to burns and scrapes as a poultice because of their incredible antiseptic properties. You can also burn Cattails and use the ash topically, or make a jelly from the plant for relief of pain and soothing of inflammation. The antioxidant properties of Cattails have also been studied as a possible way to slow the spread of cancer and keep skin healthy.

Cattails are not just for eating and healing. The shaft of the Cattail plant is strong enough to be used as shelter-building material, or for arrow shafts. The puffy seed heads can be used in the wild to stuff a pillow, and are sometimes used in clothes as an alternative to down. The leaves can be woven into baskets, while the heads make excellent torches.

During World War II, the US used Cattail cotton to insulate heavy coats and stuff cushions so that they did not have to rely on imported cotton. Native Americans used the downy fluff to line moccasins and wove the leaves into mats and baskets.

A crucial survival tool for adventurers and ancient civilizations, Cattails remain a useful and important resource. Growing and harvesting them is easy, and they are sure to be the plant that keeps on giving.


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