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Supermarket of the Swamp

Nothing tastes better in summer than an outdoor barbecue and sitting down to eat a hot, steamy, mouth-watering plate full of sweet buttered “CATTAIL”-on-the-cob. Yes that’s right, cattail-- those tall fuzzy topped plants that grow in nearly every swamp or wet ditch in the state. Let the cows eat the corn, cattails taste just as good and are free for the taking. I was once a skeptic myself,  but one summer I decided to give them a try. Despite the usual look of disbelief from my family whenever I attempt to cook up wild culinary delights, they were really very tasty. According to the recipe,  you harvest the young green bloom spikes of the cattail before they turn brown and dry. You then boil them in water and spread a little butter or margarine on them just like you prepare corn-on-the-cob. As it turns out they really do smell and taste (sort of) like sweet corn and you  can munch them off the hard inner stem or cob just like corn.  I found that the cattail spikes that were about as thick as your little finger and about ready to release their yellow pollen worked the best.

Wild food guru and author, Euell Gibbons, once called cattails, “the supermarket of the swamps” because they can be used as food in so many ways and nearly any time of the year. Cattails are made up of over 30 percent sugar and starches and are almost equal in nutrition to corn or rice. The cattail “sweet corn” season lasts from early spring right into summer since different species of cattails bloom as different times. Later, when the flower spike turn yellow, the pollen can be harvested and sifted into flower or mixed with bread crumbs and eggs and baked into a casserole. I’ve also eaten the soft inner stems of  cattail which taste to me like fresh cucumbers. Even in late fall and winter, the bulb-like  new sprouts on its roots have a tender inner core that can be peeled, boiled or cooked with meat.  I’ve tried these also but found them to taste more like swamp muck than an edible vegetable, but would be a good emergency food supply--if you were starving I suppose.  

If eating cattails isn’t your savoir faire,  the plants still are attractive to look at and many people gather them for flower decorations, to camouflage duck blinds and for many other uses. The long, strong leaves have been used for thousands of years to weave chair seats and baskets. Some type of cattail is believed to have been used to weave the famous “bulrush” basket which carried the infant Moses down the Nile River in ancient Egypt.     American Indians used cattail leaves to cover their wigwams and wove them into sturdy floor mats and storage baskets as well. 

The  familiar long, brown, seed heads or “cat tails” are made up of soft cotton-like down which is slowly released as they ripen and float away in the breeze. Indians used this soft, water repellent cattail fuzz as padding for cradle boards to keep their babies dry and comfortable--sort of like nature’s original Pampers I guess. They also used cattail down as stuffing to make warm sleeping bags and mattresses. Cattail seed heads were used commercially as late as World War II, when  their soft down was used as padding in tanks and airplanes. Because of their buoyancy, cattail down was also used to stuff  life rafts and life jackets as well. A few winters ago, my family and I inadvertently discovered another ancient use of ripe cattail heads when took a hike across a frozen marsh and got into a good natured cattail fight. As we whacked each other with the soft, ripe seed heads, they exploded into clouds of  fuzz . All this seemed funny as first until we found that our eyes were sore and stinging from the airborne down. Later, we learned that the Ojibwe Indians actually used this cattail fuzz to throw into their enemy’s eyes to blind them as an early weapon of war.

Today, we don’t need cattails to help us win military battles, stuff our mattresses cover our wigwams and we certainly have better food to eat as well. But still, cattails play a vital role in wetlands helping filter out contaminants in our surface water and provide shelter and food for ducks, geese, sandhill cranes, muskrats and many other wild animals who shop at nature’s supermarket of the swamps.


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Last updated: April 2014