Cattails grow in just about every pond and lake, including most roadside ditches on the BC coast. You can’t miss a cattail stand with its brown, tube-shaped heads sitting at the top of very long stalks. In the spring, the sword-like leaves, with parallel veins, resemble other wetland plants, but last year’s stalks will still be there to provide positive identification. By late spring, the light green leaves have reached nearly 1.5 meters tall, forming a sheath where they tightly embrace the stalk base. The leaves hide the new tops until they reach maturity.
These plants have changed little over time, and they date back to the time of the dinosaurs, both male and female flowers grow on each stalk but are separate on the flower head. The pollen-producing male is on the top and the female is on the bottom. The male flower dies relatively quickly, but the female flower turns into the familiar brown cattail that we all know after it is fertilized.
Cattails grow in dense stands, they grow from rhizomes, they are thick stems that connect all the stalks to one another in the pond bottom. In spring, the cattail shoot has an odorless, tender, white, inner core that tastes sweet, mild, and pleasant.
All parts are used for food and medicine. It is easy to harvest, very tasty, and highly nutritious. It was a major staple for the first peoples, they would gather the shoots in great numbers.
They would harvest cattail shoots after a dry period, when the ground is solid, looking in the least muddy locations. Select the largest shoots that haven’t begun to flower, and use your hands to move the leaves off as deep as you can and then grasp the stalk firmly and as you pull it up, wiggle it back and forth to break it loose.
Great in stir-fries and stews, you can slice the shoots lengthwise and barbecue them or just slice them thin and add them to salads. You can dry and grind them to use as flour or collect the pollen just after the summer solstice and use it like you would use bee pollen.
The first peoples also used cattails medicinally: They applied the jelly from between the young leaves to wounds, sores, boils, carbuncles, external inflammations, and boils to soothe pain.