The Multipurpose Plant. How Cattails Were a Staple of 18th Century Life


Cattails are tall wetland plants with brown, cylindrical flower spikes, sword-shaped leaves, and velvety, slender stalks that have been an important part of the historical North American ecosystem. The native peoples of North America used nearly every part of the cattail plant for food, medicine, construction, fuel, livestock feed, weaving, art, and cleansers. Historically, cattails were a staple of life and provided numerous practical purposes in the 1700s and earlier.

This content will provide an overview of the traditional uses of the cattail plant during the 1700s and earlier in North America.


Cattails were an important food source in the 1700s. The starchy roots of the cattail plant were dug up and eaten raw or cooked into various dishes. According to Eat The Weeds, “No green plant produces more edible starch per acre than the Cat O’ Nine Tails; not potatoes, rice, taros or yams.” The starch could be easily extracted from the roots by pounding or grinding them. The starch was then dried and made into flour. Cattail root flour was used to make bread, pancakes, biscuits, and porridges.

Cattail root starch provided essential calories and nutrients to many people in the 1700s. According to Adirondack Almanack, “The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and urinary tract infections.” The young shoots could also be eaten raw or cooked like asparagus. The cattail was an abundant and versatile food source for early Americans.


Cattails had many medicinal uses in the 1700s. The leaves were used to treat wounds by American Indians and early colonists. According to Adirondack Almanack, “The roots were used to treat kidney stones, wounds, whooping cough and sprains.” This demonstrates that various parts of the cattail plant provided medicinal value for early Americans.

Specifically, the leaves of the cattail plant were applied topically to help stop bleeding and promote healing of cuts, scrapes, burns and other wounds. Backwoods Home Magazine notes, “Poultices made from the split and bruised roots that can be applied to cuts.” The styptic and soothing properties of cattail leaves made them an important home remedy before modern medicine.


Cattails were commonly used for thatching roofs in the 1700s. The long, flat leaves of the cattail plant were gathered and dried. They were then woven together into mats that provided an effective waterproof roof covering (Typha – Bugwoodwiki). Early European settlers noted how weatherproof the cattail thatched roofs were that were used by Native Americans on their wigwams (Cattails: A Wetland Favorite’s Useful History). The linear leaves of the cattail contain air channels that help repel water when woven together. This made them an ideal natural roofing material in the 1700s before more modern materials were available.


The fluffy seed heads produced by cattails were commonly used as tinder for starting fires in the 1700s. When the seed heads are dry, they are extremely flammable and make excellent fire starting material. According to The Essentials of a Wood Fire: Tinder, Kindling, Fuel, “Cattail leaves dry; Dry pine needles; Fat Lighter or Fat wood; Tinder fungus; Punk wood; Poplar Cotton” were commonly used as tinder. The fluffiness and high surface area of dried cattail seed heads allows them to catch a spark easily and ignite into flames rapidly. Using cattail fluff as tinder enabled people in the 1700s to start cooking and heating fires efficiently with the primitive fire-starting tools they had at the time.

Livestock Feed

In the 1700s, cattails were an important source of nutritious forage for livestock such as horses, cattle, pigs, and sheep. The rhizomes, shoots, and young flower spike heads of the cattail plant provided animals with carbohydrates and proteins. Cattails were often abundant in wetland areas where livestock grazed. According to sources, “In northwestern Montana, broadleaf cattail habitat types may receive heavy livestock use in spring because they provide the first green forage. Cattle and horses feed on broadleaf cattail primarily when Olney threesquare is succulent.” (Typha latifolia). Cattails supplemented grazing lands and helped provide sustenance for farm animals in the 1700s.


Cattail leaves were an important resource for weaving mats and baskets in the 1700s. Native Americans would harvest the leaves and dry them to use for weaving. The leaves were strong and pliable which made them well-suited for basketry.

According to Cattails: A Wetland Favorite’s Useful History, throughout the Northeast, native peoples collected cattail leaves to sew into siding for their homes. Wigwams were the housing of choice in the region and cattail leaves provided excellent insulation and protection.

Cattail basket weaving continues to be practiced today. As described at Cattail Basket Weaving In Romanian Danube, cattail basket weaving has a long tradition in some areas, like the village of Luncavița in Romania.


Cattails were an important resource for artistic endeavors in the 1700s. The leaves and flower spikes could be used to create dolls, decorations, and other art pieces. According to the National Park Service, Native American tribes like the Hidatsa used cattails for crafts and art projects.

The Hidatsa wove the leaves into dolls and figures for their children to play with. The brown cattail spikes also made attractive decorations when left to dry in bundles. Cattail down was occasionally used as stuffing for dolls or padding for decorations. Overall, cattails provided an accessible and versatile art medium for tribes living near wetlands.

Cattail art projects show how indigenous people made use of the plant’s unique structural properties. Transforming the leaves, spikes, and down into art was an ingenious use of natural materials. The cattail’s fibrous leaves in particular made strong, pliable weaving material well-suited for crafting figures and dolls.


One of the most common uses of cattails in the 1700s was as a cleanser and absorbent material. The fluffy “fur” from the female flower heads was harvested and used as padding and stuffing. According to Early spring Cattail Fluff, people traditionally used cattail fluff for diapers and menstrual pads. The fluff is incredibly soft and absorbent, making it ideal for personal hygiene purposes. Women would gather the furry material and stuff it into cloth to create early menstrual pads. Cattail down was also used as a stuffing for mattresses and pillows. Its absorbent properties allowed it to soak up perspiration and odors.


In summary, cattails had a wide variety of traditional uses in the 1700s. The rhizomes and young shoots were an important food source, eaten boiled, roasted, or ground into flour. Medicinally, cattails were used to treat conditions like wounds, kidney stones, coughs, and sprains. The leaves could be woven into mats, baskets, temporary shelters, and hats. The stalks provided material for arrow shafts, and the fluff made excellent tinder for starting fires. Cattail down was also used as stuffing for bedding and clothing. Overall, nearly every part of the cattail plant had a practical use, making it a versatile wetland plant with great value for daily life in the 1700s.

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