Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Genus Typha

Drive by a river, stream, pond, wetland, or other small body of water, just about anywhere in the North America and you will see cattails. Their distinctive stalks crowned by long, cylindrical, furry flowers makes them easy to pick out of all of the other plants. However, few people are aware of the vast potential for food and medicine that these plants provide.

History of Use

Cattails are found in temperate regions throughout the world, and have been exploited by just about every indigenous group that has known them. They provide an abundant food resource all year round, as well as being a source of medicine, fiber and many other essential things.


As a food, cattails are superb. They provide food year round and almost every part of the plant can be consumed at different stages. In the Spring, the young shoots can be eaten before the flower forms. Simply peel the outer leaves back to find the sweet, juicy inner “heart.” In early Summer, the immature flower heads can be consumed. These must be boiled or steamed, and are said to have a flavor similar to that of corn. They are high in protein and vitamins and minerals. During the Fall and Winter, the plant survives on a store of starch in the rhizome. These can be dug up, cleaned, and the starch extracted from them with water. However, the difficulty of finding, digging, cleaning and processing the rhizome in addition to the poor yield make this task less than worthwhile. As a result, these are more likely candidates for famine food than staples.

In addition to providing food, the firm stalks and leaves of the cattail can be used as a fiber or to make cordage. The pollen from the flowers is often collected for medicinal purposes, and, in some places, is a tasty food in its own right. In New Zealand, the pollen from Typha orientalis is collected and made into a porridge or small, sweet cakes. Finally, the fluffy flowers are often collected and used to make pillows, and to line moccasins and cribs. However, when used in this manner, it is necessary to put thick material over the cattail bedding because it can cause a severe rash if kept in contact with the skin for long periods of time.


Brill, Steve. Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places. 1st ed. Harper Paperbacks, 1994.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, USA, 1999.