Cattail Survival. Everything You Need to Know About Living Off This Common Plant


Cattails are a type of wetland plant that consists of tall stalks with thick, sword-like leaves. Scientifically known as Typha, cattails belong to the plant family Typhaceae. The cattail has two main parts: leaves that emerge from the base and the cylindrical, spiky upright stem. The spongy stalks of cattails can grow up to 10 feet tall. The leaves are long and flat, reaching up to 0.5 inches wide. The leaves originate near the base of the plant and can reach lengths of around 5 feet (

Nutritional Value

Native Americans relied on cattails as an important nutritional source due to their high nutritional content and availability. Cattails provide carbohydrates, protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals. For example, 19g of cattail shoots contain 16 calories, with 4.3mcg of vitamin K, 0.17mg of manganese, 0.144mg of magnesium, and 0.9g of fiber

Cattail shoots are also a source of vitamins A, E, and C as well as folate. The rhizomes contain starch and 10% protein. Cattail pollen provides amino acids. Overall, cattails offer a nutritious profile to supplement the traditional Native American diet.

Edible Parts

Cattails have several edible parts that can be identified and prepared for eating:


The rhizomes are underground horizontal stems that grow just below the surface. They can be dug up, peeled, and eaten raw or cooked like potatoes (source). They have a sweet, nutty flavor. Rhizomes are best harvested in early spring or late fall when the plant is dormant.


The shoots grow up from the rhizomes into green stalks. The inner white core of young shoots can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked (source). They have a flavor similar to cucumber. Shoots are harvested in early spring before the stalks toughen.


The green stalks can be peeled and the inner pith can be boiled or roasted after harvesting in early to mid-summer. The pith tastes similar to corn.


The young flower spikes can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob in mid-summer. They have a sweet flavor and soft texture.


Cattails can be harvested at different times of the year depending on the part being collected. According to WikiHow, the best time to harvest cattail shoots is in the early spring when they are young and tender. Use a knife to cut the shoots just above the root. Cattail leaves can be harvested anytime during the growing season from spring to fall. Grab a handful of leaves and slice them off at the base. Cattail flower spikes should be picked in early to mid-summer when they are first forming and are still green. Use scissors or a knife to cut the spike right below the flower head.

The pollen from cattail flowers can also be collected during summer. According to Gardening Know How, shake the flower spike gently to collect the yellow pollen in a bag or container. For the starchy cattail roots, wait until late fall or winter when the plant has died back. Use a shovel or trowel to dig around the base of the plant and pull up the roots. The roots can be washed and peeled to access the edible white starch inside.

Food Uses

Cattails have many edible parts that can be eaten raw or cooked into various dishes. The starchy rhizomes can be dried and ground into a nutritious gluten-free flour that can be used for baking breads and pancakes.

The inner core of young shoots can be peeled and eaten raw like a vegetable, boiled for 15 minutes, or sautéed with butter. Some describe the taste as reminiscent of cucumbers. The shoots can also be pickled for preservation.

The spikes that form after flowering can be boiled when young and eaten like corn on the cob. Once mature, the yellow pollen can be knocked off and used as a flour supplement or egg substitute in recipes. Some people add a bit to pancake batter for color and nutrition.

The immature flower heads can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Once mature, the fluffy seed head material, known as cattail down or cattail fluff, can be used in recipes as a starch similar to couscous or mixed with other flours. However, the mature fluff is not very palatable [1].

Medicinal Uses

Cattails have long been used by Native Americans and traditional herbal practitioners for their medicinal properties.[1] The roots and leaves were commonly used to treat wounds, burns, and skin issues due to their natural antiseptic qualities.[2] Split cattail roots can be applied topically as a poultice to soothe cuts, abrasions, burns, boils, and infections.[3] Traditional herbalists also used cattail root infusions to treat gastrointestinal issues like diarrhea. The gelatinous substance from crushed cattail shoots has been used as a soothing salve for minor burns and skin inflammations. Beyond topical uses, cattail roots were used internally as a diuretic and to relieve stomach cramps. Cattail’s anti-inflammatory effects made it a useful remedy for swelling and pain. Overall, every part of the cattail plant provided some medicinal benefit to Native peoples.

Other Survival Uses

Cattails have many other survival uses beyond food and medicine. The dried leaves can be used as tinder to help start fires. The soft seed fluff from the flowers acts as excellent insulation material. It can be used to stuff jackets, sleeping bags, and pads. According to Survivopedia, “The seed fluff was used as diaper lining by Native Americans. It can also be used as pillow stuffing.”

The flower heads can be dipped in wax or fat and lit as torches. The stalks can be woven into baskets, mats, hats, and even shoes. The fluff was traditionally used to transport fire embers from one location to another. Cattail leaves produce a gelatinous substance that has wound healing and pain relieving properties.

Overall, the cattail plant has been called “The Supermarket of the Swamp” due to its many versatile uses for survival.


While nutritious and versatile, cattails alone cannot provide all the nutrients required in a balanced diet for human health and survival. According to the National Institutes of Health, a balanced diet includes carbohydrates, protein, fat, vitamins, minerals and adequate water intake (Fruet, 2012).

The primary nutritional components of cattails are carbohydrates and fiber. According to Lybrate, cattails contain some protein, vitamins and minerals but not significant amounts to meet daily nutritional requirements (Lybrate, 2020). Cattails lack adequate protein, essential fatty acids, and a full range of vitamins and minerals needed for health.

Relying solely on cattails can lead to malnutrition over time. Cattails should be consumed as part of a varied diet to ensure intake of a complete nutritional profile. While cattails have excellent survival value, they cannot fully sustain human life alone.


Cattails grow throughout most of North America. They are found near the edges of ponds, lakes, streams, and wetland areas. Cattails prefer wet, marshy areas with lots of sunlight and disturbed soils. They can grow in shallow water, or in relatively dry places. Cattails spread readily via underground rhizome growth and wind-dispersed seeds, allowing them to quickly colonize open wetland habitats.

Before foraging for cattails, be sure to check your local regulations. In some protected wetlands, removing vegetation like cattails may be prohibited or require a permit. Always take care to harvest sustainably, leaving some plants intact to allow the cattail stands to regenerate.


In summary, cattails are an excellent survival food source that can provide a wide variety of nutrients and uses during an emergency situation. Though not a complete food source on their own, the various edible parts of the cattail plant, including the rhizomes, shoots, stalks, leaves, flowers, and pollen, make it one of the most versatile wild plants for survival. With their high carbohydrate content and presence of some protein, vitamins and minerals, cattails can provide sufficient nutrition to sustain a person for days or weeks if needed. Their abundant availability in wetland areas across much of North America and easy accessibility make them one of the best and most reliable survival plants. While not a long-term solution on their own, cattails are an excellent supplement to other gathered or hunted foods in an outdoor survival situation.

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