Laura Dean Bennett
Cattails can be found growing in low-lying, marshy areas not only here in Pocahontas County, but all over the world.
We watch for the velvety brown heads to fully develop on cattails, because they make a natural addition to dramatic fall décor.
But a cattail is so much more than just a pretty face.
They are a veritable wonder of nature – providing sustenance and shelter for a variety of species, from tiny fish to humans and all sorts of life in between.
In addition to fish, their underwater ecosystem is home to many aquatic species, including amphibians. Above ground, they provide nesting material, food and shelter for dozens, if not hundreds of varieties of birds and mammals.
Even when the winter winds begin to blow, a stand of cattails still serves as a protective haven for wildlife.
Since before recorded history, humans have made use of cattails as food, medicine, furniture, building material and tools.
Cattails are perennial reeds which can grow anywhere there is a steady source of water.
Related to grasses, they are in the Typhaceae family and belong to the genus Typha. They usually grow to between three and 10 feet tall.
The species most common in the United States is Typha latifolia, which is widespread around the world in the most temperate parts of the northern hemisphere.
But there are also blue cattails (Typha glauca), narrowleaf cattails (Typha angustifolia) and southern cattails (Typha domingensis).
Mid-summer to early fall is the ideal time for harvesting cattails in this part of the world.
For making arrangements, you’ll want to gather them before they go to seed, while the cattail head is still firm and brown, with a few flowers left on top.
When you go harvesting, you’ll want a pair of rubber boots, garden shears, gardening gloves and a large bucket or heavy duty garbage bag in which to bring the cattails home.
You’ll also want to be sure the cattails you have your eye on are not on private, protected or restricted land.
Cut the cattails as close to their base as you can. The longer you leave the stems, the more leeway you’ll have when you get ready to use them.
They are naturally dry, so drying them is not difficult.
You’ll need string or twine to tie the cattails in bundles, newspaper, clear craft lacquer or hairspray (doesn’t have to be fancy – the cheap stuff actually works better).
Remove imperfect leaves, or all the leaves if you wish– they do tend to get brittle and will eventually crumble. Trim the stems to varying lengths or all the same length, depending on the look you’re going for.
Tie in bundles of five or six cattails about one-inch from the base.
Hang the bundle(s) upside down, away from direct sunlight, in a cool, dry place where good air circulation will ensure that they dry thoroughly.
Allow cattails to hang for two to three weeks.
When they’ve dried, you’ll want to preserve them.
Properly preserved, they will last nicely for a year or more. Unpreserved, they tend to fall apart, scatter seeds and make a big, fluffy mess.
Put newspaper down to protect your work surface and lay the cattails down, several inches apart.
Spray a thin, even coat of hairspray or lacquer onto the entire cattail head (you may also spray the leaves). Allow to dry.
Turn cattails over and spray the other side. Repeat until you have two or three coats of coverage, allowing time for drying between each coat.
Arrange your cattails in a container of your choice.
Of course, a vase will do nicely, but you might also consider a bucket, a crock or a basket. Get creative – a decorative metal trash can or an umbrella stand may do the trick.
To keep your cattails looking fresh for a long time, keep them in a dry area away from direct sunlight. The sun will not only bleach their color but will also make them brittle.
Decorating with cattails is so easy. They look perfect all by themselves, and they’re are wonderful for adding height and interest to all kinds of flower arrangements.
Cattails are a natural with hydrangeas and chrysanthemums. Or try placing them among a grouping of bare birch or willow branches.
They also pair nicely with goldenrod and dried grasses in a basket or a vase wrapped with burlap cloth.
Besides making an elegant addition to your home décor, cattails may also find their way into the kitchen.
People have been eating them and using them for medicine for centuries in many cultures in Europe and Asia.
At different times in its growth cycle, every part of the cattail is edible – from its roots to its leaf bases, sheaths and pollen.
Cattails are known for their ability to detoxify polluted or stagnant water as they draw the water in through their stems.
This is why it’s important to take care in harvesting them if you are planning to use them for food or medicine.
Cattails taken from unsafe water or harvested near unsafe water should never be eaten or used as medicine.
The roots are called corms, and you can eat them raw or cooked.
I understand their taste resembles a cross between corn and potato.
Cook the young shoots like asparagus, and the young buds like corn cobs.
When the buds which are still left on the stalk start flowering, gather the pollen.
You can mix cattail flour into pancakes and other baked goods.
Cattails were extremely valuable to Native Americans and our pioneer ancestors in early America as the jelly-like substance found between young cattail leaves was both ingested and applied topically with analgesic and antibiotic effect.
For insect bites, cattail jelly can be applied topically, and the flour can be made into a poultice with anti-inflammatory effect.
You may not be ready to harvest cattails for your dinner table or medicine cabinet, but these days there are many cattail products are available in specialty shops and health food stores.
Indigenous people were weaving cattail baskets and stuffing pillows and blankets since before recorded time.
They also used dried cattail leaves to fashion fish traps and cattail reeds to make arrow shafts.
They used cattails to build lean-tos for shelter in temperate weather.
Their long, sturdy stalks were used to support the structure and their long leaves were woven between the stalks to form the walls.
Modern gardeners put cattail reeds to use in the garden. The reeds can be braided to form decorative support structures and fences, which can be composted at the end of the growing season.
Cattails’ long, slender leaves make strong cordage, as well.
Cut them into thin strips and braid them smoothly, then form a three-or four-strand braid to create sturdy twine.
Woven cattail leaves and stems can be used like rattan to make surprisingly sturdy chair seats and even snowshoes.
Cattail dolls have been popular in Scandinavia and elsewhere for thousands of year. Native American tribes used cattails to create little figures for children’s toys.
During World War II, cattails’ fluffy seeds were even used to stuff life jackets.
Many cultures associated cattails with the concept of peace, and used them much like olive branches.
In ancient Ireland, cattails were gathered and set on fire during the festival of Samhain – named after the Gaelic name for the month of November. Samhain was the precursor of our modern day Halloween.
Cattail bonfires were lit at sunset on October 31st to mark the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter.
Cattail’s association with peace-making notwithstanding, there was an old superstition in Britain associating cattails with death.
It is said that if a bulrush – as they are known in Britain – is cut and brought into the house, it can be a harbinger of death.
That said, if you’re at all superstitious, then maybe you might think twice about using them in flower arrangements.
I don’t subscribe to that superstition myself.
When I was growing up, we had a stand of cattails growing in a wet area in the woods beside our home.
We may not have used them for food or medicine, but we often gathered them to decorate the house, along with all the colorful bounty of fall.
Rather than a premonition of death, the cattails brought a celebration of life and natural beauty into our home.