Nature Bulletin No. 416-A April 24, 1971
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation
One of the remarkable things about the primitive American Indians
was their use of innumerable plants for food, clothing, shelter,
medicines and implements. The early settlers learned a lot from them
but, as civilization progressed, much of that knowledge was abandoned
and forgotten. Now a new science, called "chemurgy", is discovering
that some of our abundant but neglected plants have undreamed-of
possibilities. One of these is the common Cattail.
This is the familiar plant with erect strap-like leaves from 4 to 8 feet
tall and, above them on a slender stalk, the cylindrical flower-head
which is green and velvety in early summer when it resembles a cat's
tail. The upper part contains the male flowers which drop off after they
have bloomed and shed their pollen. The larger lower part contains the
female flowers which develop into a brown plushy compact mass of as
many as 300,000 very tiny seeds, each with a tuft of fine white hairs,
that are spread by winds when the head opens in autumn.
It grows in marshes and wet places. In the Chicago region, near Wolf
Lake and Lake Calumet for example, there are thousands of acres
covered with dense stands of cattails. A war-time survey showed that
there are at least 140 thousand square miles of cattail swamps in the
One Indian name for the cattail meant "fruit for papoose's bed"
because the fluffy masses of seeds are very soft and do not mat. During
World War II, several million pounds of them were used to stuff life
jackets, mattresses, pillows and baseballs. Compressed into wallboard,
they make excellent insulation against sound and heat. A drying oil
similar to linseed, a cooking oil and a wax can be extracted from the
seeds, leaving a by-product of meal which is used in cattle and chicken
centuries, cattail leaves have been used to caulk barrels, and
twisted or braided into cords for making rush-bottomed furniture. The
Indians wove them into waterproof mats for the sides of their lodges,
and sleeping mats on their travels. Soft fibers, extracted from the
leaves and stems by treating them chemically, can be used like jute for
stuffing furniture and making twine, burlap or webbing. A stickly
substance extracted from the stems may have value as an adhesive for
paper, as sizing, or in facial and shaving creams.
The core of the thick branching rootstock, which grows horizontally in
the mud, is very starchy. It can be cooked and eaten like potatoes, or
dried and ground into flour used in baking and also as a substitute for
corn starch. This flour can be fermented to produce ethyl alcohol
valuable as anti-freeze, as a cheap industrial solvent, and for medicinal
purposes. It contains more fat but slightly less protein than potato or
wheat flours, and only potato flour has more minerals .
Some Indians made jelly from the rootstocks and they can be used for
marmalade. In spring the young shoots, which taste something like a
cucumber and are called "Cossack asparagus", are peeled and eaten as
a vegetable or in salads. The young green flower-heads are said to be
delicious when boiled or roasted. The pollen, which is very abundant
and rich in vitamins and minerals, was harvested and used in bread by
our American Indians.
Cattail marshes furnish nesting places and ideal cover for red-winged
and the yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, rails, bitterns, coots
and some kinds of ducks. The rootstocks are important food for wild
geese and our most valuable furbearer, the muskrat, which uses the
leaves to build its lodges.
In late summer, the flower-head looks like a "hot dog" on a stick.
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