As all survivalists know, Mother Nature provides everything that human beings need to sustain life. From food to shelter and everything in between, knowing how to use various plants, animals, and other resources at our disposal opens up the opportunity to live a life more in tune with mother nature.
Or, in a situation that becomes desperate, they give us an opportunity to live successfully off the land—partially or completely—just as our ancestors did. Whether you just practice as a hobby because it’s fun and you love the Great Outdoors, or you’re trying to get to the point where you exist completely off-grid and subsist only on what nature provides, cattails are an absolute dream come true.
After all, when it comes to plants with multiple survival uses, cattail is one of the undisputed kings. There are ways to use this remarkable plant that fit into just about every aspect of bushcraft and wilderness survival. This post will provide a general, high-level guide to making use of this tremendously versatile survivalist’s ally.
One note on over-harvesting: cattail spreads via the fluffy seed heads and the rhizomes, so over-harvesting these parts can lead to the local population being wiped out. There is one type of cattail called narrow-leaved cattail that is considered invasive, but it will be hard for novices to tell broad-leaved from narrow-leaved varieties apart.
First, we’ll start with the basics: what cattail is, and how to identify it. Then we’ll get into some of the specific survival uses for the plant.
Finding & Identifying Cattail (Typha Latifolia)
Cattails are an aquatic plant common to ponds, marshes, lakes, and swamps, and are very easy to identify. They are distinguished by the unique seed heads on top of the stalks, which go from a hot dog or cigar-looking shape to a fluffy mass that looks somewhat like a cat’s tail—hence the name.
Cattails emerge from the muck in a long, round stalk that stands up to six feet or higher above the water. Leaves are mostly flat, narrow, and lance-shaped, emerging from the stalk in an alternating pattern.
The only real lookalikes are different varieties of the Iris plant, and it’s only the leaves that look similar. Iris and cattail are easy to differentiate, because you won’t see the distinctive seed heads (or any remnant of them, if they’re out of season), if you have Iris plants. With true cattails, you’ll always see some evidence of the seed head left behind.
Just don’t become careless and get mixed up by some Iris plants growing right next to or within your cattail patch; always harvest from plants that show some sign of the hot dog-like flower.
To obtain cattail parts, you’ll want muck boots or even hip waiters, as you’ll have to wade into the water to make your harvest. Be careful to not get bogged down. It can be wise to go with a friend. Those that have lived near boggy places will know that you can get stuck in the muck if you step where you shouldn’t. This can actually be dangerous.
To dig up underground parts, a shovel is helpful, though you may be able to make due with a sharp stick. Prepare to get very muddy! Before using parts that grow under the muck like roots and rhizomes, you’ll also have to do a lot of washing to get all the mud and much off of them.
Is your location prone to agricultural run off or other pollutants?
Cattails grow in wet areas that can sometimes have more chemicals and fertilizers in the water than you might think. I would be hesistant to pick cattails that are in ditches near big fields or similar areas. There is potential for picking up some pollutants through eating anything that is grown in a contaiminated aquatic environment.
Try to find cattails that are further away from industry and major farming operations if you intend on eating them or using them for medicinal reasons. Roadsides are also a spot to be avoided due to the oils and fluids that can come from vehicles that travel that road regularly.
I do have to say that cattails that are grown in more questionable areas could still be used for somethings such as fire tinder. I just would not want to eat any that were from a potentially polluted space.
Using Cattail for Shelter
Between walls, roofing, and insulation, cattails have numerous uses when it comes to building yourself a survival shelter. For roofing material, leaves can be cut to size and woven into sections that can then be bound with cordage to a frame. A wigwam or teepee shape works well for this, and the latter in particular will be highly resistant to wind.
But dang – you’re in the wilderness and you have no cordage, only cattails.
Good news — dried cattail leaves can be used to make strong cordage as well as roofing material! Cut the leaves to size and dry them, then separate the fibers and weave them together. You will have rope for your shelter, as well as anything else you might need some cordage for.
In a survival context, bedding and shelter are more or less in the same category. Woven cattail leaves can be used to make a mattress that is then insulated with cattail seed fluff. This will keep you vastly warmer than sleeping on the cold ground, which is a big no-no when you’re this exposed to the elements. If you have something of the right size to stuff with fluff, you can make a cattail seed pillow as well.
Using Cattail for Clothing
Just as cattail’s fluffy seed heads can be used to insulate your survival mattress, they can be stuffed into clothing to provide extra insulation. Did a bush poke a hole in your down jacket? Stuff it with cattail fluff and keep the hole sticky with tree sap to prevent losing more insulation.
Or, just stuff cattail into your clothes for added warmth. Just be mindful of the potential for scratchiness if you have sensitive skin. That being said, the seed fluff is extremely soft and has been used to make diapers for babies.
As for the leaves, a skilled weaver could potentially use them to weave shoes, hats, and other types of clothing. This would definitely require a more skilled and meticulous touch than weaving a mat or roofing material, however. If you were skilled enough to weave some cattail moccasins or other clothing, they could be stuffed with seed fluff for extra insulation.
Using Cattail for Crafting
Just as cattail leaves can be woven into clothing and roofing material, you can use them to make all kinds of other things in the wild: among them are baskets, funnels to capture rainwater into a container, bedding (as mentioned in the “shelter” section), as material for a raft floor or sail, or for thin interior walls in a survival hut or wigwam.
Weave the leaves around wood to forge a chair with a comfy seatback. Create a clothesline to dry your gear, or to hang light equipment and other items.
In addition to weaving all kinds of things, cattail leaf cordage is an incredible survival resource for tying, binding, and securing almost anything you can think of.
Using Cattail for Fire
Cattail has several fire-related uses that, even if taken in isolation from all of its other applications, make it a potential lifesaver in the wild. First off, cattail’s fluffy seed heads make a phenomenal material for tinder to get a fire going. Better yet, even after a hard rain, the seed fluff hidden within the very inner part of the cigar-shaped seed head is often still dry enough to be usable for fire-starting, and is easy to transport.
In addition, you can dry a cattail stalk to use as a hand drill in order to start a friction fire. Use the fluff and dried leaves as tinder to get your fire going, using an ultra-dry piece of wood as your fire-starting base.
In addition to using the fluff for fire-starter and the stalk for a hand drill, cattail seed heads can be dipped or rolled in fat and lit, and then used as torches. The seed heads can also be lit and then used to carry embers long distances, allowing you to “pack up” your fire and take it with you in the wild, ready to re-start with some oxygen, tinder, and kindling when you reach your next campsite.
Using Cattail for Food
If you have a way to get to them and pull them up, cattails can even provide food during the thick of winter. Below is a guide to using each part of the plant for food, from top to bottom:
1. Cattail Seed Fluff & Pollen=Great Baking Addition
Collect the fluff and grind it into flour. Cattail flour should be combined with other types when used for baking. The seed fluff and pollen can also be used to thicken batter so they are a good alternative to corn starch and other commercial thickening agents.
The “Flower” of theplant is the cattail part that looks like a hot dog. These can be roasted.
3. Leaves, Stems & Shoots
The lower parts of young leaves can be eaten raw, as a salad green, or cooked. Stems can be eaten raw or cooked; sautés and boils are popular methods. Shoots can be peeled and sautéed as well, and have a slightly sweet flavor. Pickled cattail shoots are also popular and a good way to preserve cattails that you harvest.
Try cattail in soups, stews, quiches, frittatas, stir-fries… modify some of your existing favorite recipes by incorporating cattail as an experiment, and see what you like best!
Create a powder from the dried rhizomes for to make nutritious, starchy flour, and mix up to 50/50 with regular flour to use for baking. Roots and rhizomes can also be chopped and used as a starchy vegetable for soups and stews, or chopped into thin discs and fried. Underground sections of plants like roots are best harvested in fall, when more of the plant’s energy will be stored there.
Using Cattail for Medicine
Along with its impressive roster of other uses, cattail can even be used medicinally. Cattail leaf ash has been used as an antiseptic powder to apply to wounds. The roots can be used to make salves, ointments, and poultices to treat cuts and other types of open wounds along with bites, sores, irritations, and burns.
A sticky, starchy substance at the bases of the leaves can be gathered and used as a coagulant and antiseptic. Drinking some cattail root flour with water is said to stifle diarrhea. The mashed root can be used as a type of toothpaste, especially when combined with juice made from wild mint, ground ivy, or other plants in the mint family.
Even if cattail was useful for only a single one of the above categories, it would still be a survivalist’s powerhouse plant. However, given that its uses go far beyond just one aspect of survival – be it food, medicine, crafting, or one of its other uses – this plant has truly earned its place as a survivalist’s dream come true. If you have a cattail patch nearby then please remember to harvest resposibly and leave some for seed. By doing this you can ensure an ample supply in the years to come.
Once you learn just a few of them, it’s not hard to understand why cattail has been used for centuries by native tribes, becoming critical in many regions to their way of life. Learn to start using it for fun, to become closer to nature, or just to be a little (or a lot) more ready for a situation where living off the land becomes a true matter of survival.
Author Bio: Eric is a nature-loving writer, experience junkie, and former Boy Scout who never forgot that time-honored Scout Motto: Be prepared. Aside from camping and survival, he loves writing about travel, history, and anything he finds strange and unique!
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