The Superplant. How Native Americans Utilized Every Part of the Cattail


Cattails are a versatile wetland plant that have been used by Native Americans for thousands of years. Known scientifically as Typha latifolia, cattails are an abundant resource that can be found year-round across North America near marshes, ponds, lakes, and rivers. Nearly every part of the cattail can be used – the roots, shoots, leaves, stalks, and flower spike provide food, medicine, and raw material for many purposes including mats, baskets, construction, fuel, tools, toys, and clothing.

Cattails have been an essential plant for Native American tribes for generations, providing them with food, shelter, medicine, and tools. Their many uses demonstrate the resourcefulness of Native peoples in utilizing the natural bounty around them.


Cattails were an extremely important food source for many Native American tribes. The starchy roots of the cattail plant could be dried and ground into a nutritious flour. According to the NativeTech website, “The roots may be ground into a flour. The sticky sap between the leaves is an excellent starch and can be used to thicken soups and broths.” (source). The flour from cattail roots was used to make bread and other baked goods. It provided an essential source of carbohydrates and nutrients in the diets of many indigenous peoples.


Native Americans employed various parts of the cattail plant for medicinal purposes. The pollen of the cattail was used as an astringent that helped stop bleeding and soothe cuts when applied topically. It was also taken internally to treat conditions like excessive menstrual bleeding, chest pain, and internal hemorrhaging. The roots and leaves were pounded into a paste and applied to burns, stings, wounds, sores, and abrasions as a healing poultice. Tea brewed from the root was consumed for digestive ailments like diarrhea.

Mats and Baskets

The Native Americans used cattails extensively for weaving mats and baskets. The leaves of the common cattail plant were one of the most important materials for weaving due to their straight, stiff stems and narrow leaves. The leaves were traditionally harvested in summer or fall when they were green and pliable. According to the University of Alaska Fairbanks, “For basket-weaving, the leaves were split and spun on the bare thigh” (

The leaves would be woven into large mats for sitting on, covering wigwams, making partitions, lining baskets, and more. The Native Technology site explains that cattail mats “were commonly used to make walls and room dividers in Iroquois longhouses” ( Cattail leaves were also woven into baskets, bags, and containers of all sizes used for storage, gathering, and carrying.


Cattails were an important construction material for Native Americans. According to the Texas Beyond History website, Cattail, Tule, the stalks of cattails have been identified occasionally as construction material in archaeological sites. Cattail stalks are strong, yet pliable, making them well-suited for building structures.

Cattail stalks were used to make the frames of different types of dwellings, including wigwams, longhouses, and wetus. The stalks were lashed together with cordage to form the structural frames. These frames would then be covered with sheets of bark, hides, mats, or thatch made from additional cattail leaves and stalks. Cattail stalk bundles were also used to make interior room dividers and furniture frames.

Cattail stalks are naturally water-resistant, so they were ideal for constructing shelters like wetus, which are domed huts partially dug into the ground and covered with cattail thatch. The water-repellent properties of the stalks helped shed rainwater. Cattail stalk constructions were common in wetland areas where these plants grew in abundance.


Cattails provided an important fuel source for Native Americans. The fluffy seed heads that appear in late summer were collected and used as tinder for starting fires. The fluff acts as an excellent firestarter because it catches even the smallest spark ( To collect the fluff, Native Americans would bend the stalks into their canoes and beat them with sticks, causing the fluff to fall and collect in the bottom of the boat. This fluffy tinder was kept dry until needed to build a cooking or warming fire.


Native Americans used different parts of the cattail plant to construct useful tools. The stalks were often dried and used to make arrow shafts and spears for hunting due to their straight and rigid structure (Source). The leaves were woven into mats, baskets and thatching for shelter. The fluffy flower heads were used as tinder for starting fires, as well as absorbent padding in baby diapers. The roots could be pounded and mixed with water to create a gelatinous paste for gluing arrowheads onto shafts.

Overall, almost every part of the cattail plant had a functional use for Native Americans, whether for hunting, construction, medicine or food. The versatile cattail provided indigenous tribes with abundant raw materials that were vital for their survival and way of life.


Native American tribes, especially those in the Great Lakes region like the Chippewa (Ojibwe), made dolls and figures out of cattail heads and other grasses (Source: The fluffy seed head of the cattail when dried made perfect doll heads. Children would carefully peel back the leaves to reveal the head, then tie it onto a stick body. Decorations were added with dyed porcupine quills for eyes and mouth or clothing details. These simple but imaginative cattail dolls provided hours of playtime fun.


Native Americans used parts of the cattail plant to insulate their clothing and keep warm. The fluffy flower head was commonly used as stuffing for jackets, moccasins, and mittens to provide warmth and insulation against the cold. The downy seed head acts as a natural thermal insulator, trapping air and body heat much like down feathers do. By lining clothing with cattail fluff, Native peoples were able to survive frigid winters across North America from the Great Plains to the Arctic.

Cattail down was an ideal insulating material for clothing and footwear. It is lightweight, compressible, and extremely warm for its weight. The fluff was stuffed into leather hides or fur pelts to create well-insulated winter garments. Mittens lined with cattail down kept hands warm and protected during harsh weather. In some tribes, moccasins were also packed with cattail fluff to add cushioning and insulation. The insulating properties of cattail down allowed Native Americans to thrive and remain active even in bitterly cold climates.


Cattails were an incredibly versatile and essential plant for Native Americans. As summarized in this article, cattails provided Native Americans with food such as the roots, shoots, and pollen. They used the leaves medicinally to heal wounds and sores. The stalks were woven into mats and baskets, and used along with cattail leaves to construct shelters. The fluffy flower heads acted as tinder to start fires. Parts of the plant were fashioned into tools and toys. Even the leaves and stalks were made into clothing. Cattails were truly a vital resource that Native Americans relied on for nearly all aspects of daily life.

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