Cattails: "Supermarket in the Swamp"
It's about time I did a post on the other wild plant I think is supremely important as a food source for self-sufficiency and wilderness survival. Cattails, which are the plants in the genus typha, are a moisture loving plant usually found and swamps, on the edges of bodies of water, and in fairly wet ditches. They grow on every continent, and are fairly easy to identify. There are edible parts year round.
I like to think of the cattail harvesting year starting in the spring. As the snows and ice fade away and reveal the earth and water underneath, cattails start sending up their shoots. I think it's best to wait until they grow up so the leaves are at least a foot high, so it's worth it. To harvest, pull aside the two outer leaves, pinch lightly with your index finger and thumb right near the ground or water (if it's deep in the water, you can reach in, but I usually get these ones from a kayak so I don't), and yank upwards. It should separate from the root easily, giving you a whitish shoot from which the leaves come out of. Separate the white shoot from the tough green leaves, which you can save for various crafts like rope, mat, and basket making. The shoot can be eaten raw or cooked; normally I only eat it raw if it came from sandy areas, otherwise I worry a bit about giardia and other pathogens. My favorite recipes are to saute with worcestershire sauce and onions, or to batter and fry them. You can harvest the shoots later in the year, but they tend to not be that good after the spring. When you harvest the shoots, you also often find a mucilaginous substance in between the leaves. This is soothing like aloe, and reportedly a good topical pain-killer.
In the late spring to early summer, the long flower spikes shoot out. These are the most recognizable sign that it is definitely cattails you're dealing with. There are two flowers on a cattail plant, the male and the female. The female is the on that looks like a green or brown sausage, and above that grows the male flower. When the male flower is yellow with pollen, you can gather that pollen by bending it over into a bag and shaking. This probably also helps the cattail pollinate the female flower. The window for this is really small, and I always end up missing it. The female flower can be eaten while it's still green; many people recommend boiling and eating like corn on the cob.
Later on, when the fertilized female flower forms the seeds, the fluffy seed clusters can be used as tinder and for stuffing pillows. I think it makes a way better winter insulation than stuffing your clothes with leaves, which is often uncomfortable. If you can find a cattail head that has been fertilized but doesn't fluff out, you can get it to smolder for a long time to transport your fire from one place to another. It will smolder like a cigar. My brother-in-law recommends that for repelling insects, as it can be made to smoke a lot.
The late fall and all through winter (even into early spring sometimes) are the best times to gather the root because the nutrients go back into the root at those times. You can really gather them any time, though. Cattails spread primarily by root colonies, so when you pull up the roots you often find long roots connecting the large rhizomes. All of this is edible, but you probably want to go for the ones that are white on the inside. You can prepare them like a baked potato (it's stringier, but tastes similar), or separate out the starches from the stringy fibers.
I've heard of the reed being used as survival arrows, but I don't think I buy that. They're too wobbly. Maybe there's a way to dry them hard, but even ones I've dried aren't all that stable.
The cattail plant plays an important role for us humans and lots of animals as food, as material to build with, and also serves the role of filtering out water. I've heard that the sewage treatment in Arcata, CA works on a permaculture design that uses cattail swamps. Because of this quality, don't harvest near roadsides. In terms of productivity, I've heard that cattails produce many times the amount of starch per acre that wheat does. With all those edible parts, I can see how.