Press-Republican

October 14, 2012

Food for thought: cattails a productive plant

By ELIZABETH LEELiving With Wilderness
Press-Republican

---- — 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 eattheweeds.com, “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.

Before man-made fibers were introduced, manufacturers used fibers from kapok — a plant native to tropical climates — for buoyancy and insulation in life jackets and mattresses.

In a 1980 article in Mother Earth News, Melinda Allen reported that the potential of cattail down as a commercial alternative was explored briefly during World War II. 

When Japan cut off the supply of kapok from Asian forests, “(A) Chicago company began to substitute cattail cotton in furniture cushions and baseballs. Soon afterward, the Navy decided to look into the possibility of using the fuzzy heads of the aquatic weed in life belts and aviation jackets. Sure enough, a wartime water-resistance test demonstrated that even after 100 hours of submersion, the ‘swamp down’ was capable of maintaining buoyancy.”

For a small scale entrepreneur, cattails are a local, renewable resource that could be made into quilts, pillows, cushions, clothing or stuffed animals. For those who have more to invest in production, cattails also have huge potential for biofuel.

When so many people are out of work and longing to stay connected to their land, cultivation or harvest of plants for food or income is not far-fetched.

All important agricultural and forest products became commercially meaningful at some time when human beings looked carefully at nature.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed guide who lives in Westport. She leads recreational and educational programs focused in the Champlain Valley throughout the year. Contact her at lakeside5047@gmail.com.