Cat-o-nine-tails, reedmace, bulrush, water torch, candlewick, punk, and corn dog grass. The cattail has almost as many names as it has uses. Humans have taken their cue from the animals over the centuries and continue to benefit from cattail’s nutritional, medicinal, and material uses.
One fall day, on a visit to Bancroft Pond, Missoula’s urban wetland wedged between Bancroft and 34th St., my eight-year-old daughter and her friend collected grocery bags filled with cattail fluff. The two girls filled hand-sewn pillows with the cattail down, unknowingly mimicking the indigenous use of the plant’s seeds in lining moccasins and papoose boards. People who have trouble weighing the environmental and ethical implications of purchasing jackets or sleeping bags filled with goose down versus synthetic down may be pleased to learn that cattail fluff is an environmentally-friendly — though decidedly time-consuming— alternative.
Cattails are a utilitarian plant. Montana is home to the native broadleaf variety, as well as the introduced narrow leaf plants. At Bancroft Pond the cattails most noticeably provide perches for a multitude of red-winged blackbirds that compete with the sounds of traffic to create with their unmistakable trills of “conk-la-ree!” Female red-winged blackbirds — less showy than their boasting male counterparts — hide at the base of the cattails, nesting and raising their young. Also commonly seen at Bancroft Pond are mallard ducks and Canada geese who eat the cattail roots. Painted turtles, often seen sunning themselves on logs in Bancroft Pond during the summer, eat the cattails’ seeds and stems. And many songbirds, such as cedar waxwings, line their nests with cattail down.
As previously mentioned, the cattail seed fluff can be used for stuffing and insulation. Seed fluff can also be used like cotton balls to staunch a wound, and poultices made from crushed cattail roots can be used on cuts, stings, burns, and bruises. The leaves can be woven together to make temporary shelters, mats, chairs, baskets, and hats. The dried stalks can be used as arrow shafts or hand drills, and the seed fluff can be used as tinder to start a fire. Cattails also provide two forms of antiseptic; both the ashes from burned cattail leaves and the droplets of sap that form at the plant’s base can be applied to wounds to keep them from getting infected. The sap can also be used on toothaches. Most recently, scientists have claimed the potential for cattails to be used as biofuel.
Cattails are also a culinary delicacy and all parts of the plant can be eaten. The sweet fiber in cattail roots provides an abundance of starchy carbohydrates; the new stalk shoots can be eaten to obtain Vitamins A, B, and C, potassium, and phosphorous; and the seeds can be ground and used as a flour substitute. The roots and stalks can be baked, boiled, fried, or, if harvested from a pristine area, eaten raw. Cattails can be used in recipes for pancakes and bread, casseroles, and stir fry.
Like many other wetland plants, cattails bio-accumulate toxins. When harvesting cattails for consumption, it is important to collect them from a clean source, away from roads and buildings. But because cattails absorb water pollutants, this also makes them very useful in keeping water systems clean. Urban gardeners frequently plant cattails in small ponds as a barrier between the exhaust fumes from roadways and fruit trees or vegetable plots. Cattails have also been successfully used in cleaning up a range of toxins that have leached into waterways, such as arsenic, pharmaceuticals, explosives, phosphorous, and methane.
Cattails, for all their various uses, are an invasive plant and are still often seen as an annoyance by property owners and wetlands conservationists. Cattails propagate both through their seeds—widely dispersed by the wind and birds—and through the extensive network of roots just below the mud’s surface. This advantage helps them to crowd out other important wetland plant species. However, careful stewardship of cattails within wetland areas might go a long way toward preserving the plant’s many benefits to the waterways and to the species that live and feed on them.
"Field Notes" is produced by the Montana Natural History Center.