Cattails are hard to miss, yet often dismissed. Whether in solitary clumps in a ditch or spread out in marshy fields, the burnt umber rockets hovering above dark-green blades add texture and familiarity to the landscape. Hearty and successful competitors, they can take over, and they hybridize easily. In the Bay Area, we have three species: broadleaf, narrowleaf, and southern. All were once considered native, but it appears that narrow-leaf is a very successful exotic that’s now widespread. Perhaps because cattails are so common, we don’t pay them much attention, but if our survival depended directly on the land, they would be a go-to plant. There’s a reason that Euell Gibbons called them “the supermarket of the swamp.”
In the fall, cattails send energy down to their shallow rhizomes, producing an excellent source of food starch. The ribbonlike leaves die, but the brown flower heads stand tall. They may look as dense as a corn dog, but give them a pinch and thousands of seeds explode into the air.
Come spring, tender shoots poking out of the leaf bed can be pulled out gently and eaten. Indeed, a recently published Chicago Sun-Times food article about the shoots included a recipe for cattail rice pilaf. Last spring I asked a chef to try a shoot as we canoed through Suisun Slough. He described it as having a “soapy finish,” and his choice of words was apt. Native Tech, an Internet resource for indigenous ethnotechnology, says the root can be used as toothpaste and the pollen as a hair conditioner.
- In autumn, look for the soft fluff that helps seeds from the flower disperse on the wind. Photo (c) Dan Suzio, dansuzio.com.
There is scant direct evidence of how Bay Area tribes used the plant, though Barbara Bocek’s 1984 article “Ethnobotany of Costanoan Indians” says those tribes ate the roots, young shoots, and pollen. A book on Kashaya Pomo plant use also says they ate the young shoots.
Beyond Native Californian traditions, wild edible food books and websites often list many uses for cattails. In midspring, a stalk with a stacked flower head emerges. The male flower spike, on top, produces yellow pollen that can be used as flour for baking. On the bottom, the brown, fuzzy cat’s tail look-alike is the female flower spike, which develops seeds and a fluff that aids in its dispersal by wind and sometimes collects in marshes in the fall. The fluff is so soft that it has been used to line babies’ diapers. The leaves can be made into biodegradable packaging or woven into dolls and baskets.
With the proliferation of synthetics and other materials, we’ve stopped needing the plant, but wildlife hasn’t. Seed fluff provides nesting material for red-winged blackbirds and hummingbirds. Beavers and muskrats eat the rhizomes and use the leaves to line their dens and lodges. Bees collect the pollen, and snails use the blades as vertical highways.
People who study and work in wetlands haven’t lost sight of the plant’s importance. Bay Area wetland expert and native plant advocate Phyllis Faber uses cattails as an indicator of salinity. If cattails are growing, she knows that nearby water is relatively low in salt, no higher than 2 percent.
“They will be good at keeping pace with sea level rise,” says Lisamarie Windham-Myers, a wetland ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “With their scaffolding root system, cattails accumulate land surface rapidly.”
About 15 years ago, USGS research scientists Robin Miller and Roger Fujii started a soil-building experiment on Twitchell Island in the Delta. In the process, they discovered that plots of cattails and tules sequestered about 15 metric tons of carbon annually per acre while a neighboring farm released 10 metric tons per acre during the same time frame. Until their state funding was frozen, researchers from USGS, UC Davis, and the California Department of Water Resources were working on an expanded 650-acre project to determine how to maximize carbon sequestration while building soil using cattails and other marsh plants on subsided land in the Delta, which is especially vulnerable to sea level rise.
It looks like cattails, survivors since the age of the dinosaurs, have the ability to ride out climate change, and they may help us adapt as well. And that’s not so easy to dismiss.
Foraging for wild foods without thorough knowledge of the plant and local conditions, and permission of the landowner, is not recommended and may be illegal.