October 14, 2012

Food for thought: cattails a productive plant

Laced throughout the Champlain Valley there are wetlands full of cattails.

Beneath the tall grass-like leaves there are thousands of pounds of food and standing above the roots there is a potential business for the right entrepreneur.

Cattails are one of the most productive wild food sources.

According to Green Deane, wild forager and author of the website, “No green plant produces more edible starch per acre than the Cat O’ Nine Tails; not potatoes, rice, taros or yams.”

The starch in cattails is stored in underground rhizomes and its value as food could make harvesting the plant worthwhile.

Cattails are a native plant but are considered invasive because they spread so successfully. They are widespread in the Champlain Valley and are important in the long cycle of change when wetlands turn to firm ground. 

Their rhizomes spread with fleshy white roots that make a dense, strong support system in wet mud. Over time, deposition of silt from floods and accumulation of annual leaf litter builds firm layers of ground for woody shrubs and young trees.

Because of their affinity for mud, cattails are the natural home of muskrats. Muskrats take advantage of the grassy leaves and mud to build their lodges and to make feeding platforms. Red-winged blackbirds are also frequent users of cattails but many other birds, especially ducks, rely on cattail marshes for shelter.

In addition to being a possible food source for people and a habitat for wildlife, cattails are known for their thick, brown seed heads. Once dry, the elongated brown seed heads explode into featherweight fluff. Many innocent nature collectors have been unhappily surprised by the profuse fluff that appears without notice when flower spikes mature indoors.

The fluff of cattails has been used in the past as an alternative to down for insulation and padding. It rebounds to nearly the original volume when compressed and is a natural, renewable and very inexpensive material that can be harvested without damage to the source. When dampened by dew or rain it looks like cotton candy. When thoroughly soaked, cattail down clumps like goose or duck down, but when kept dry and clean it will maintain loft for years.

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