Which is the best of the best wild edible plants? That depends on whether you are collecting them for a tasty meal, or as a matter of life or death. It also depends on the season and where you are. But despite all these qualifications, there is one that stands out as especially important in North America.
The common cattail (typha latifolia – and a few other species) is one of the first of the wild edible plants that all hikers should familiarize themselves with. It not only has several edible parts, but there is some part of the plant that can be harvested for food during any season. In addition, it has other uses as well.
In the spring you can find a cattail swamp and cut the fresh tips of the plants from the mud. Rinse them in some safe water and they are edible either raw or cooked. Once you know the plant, identifying the new shoots is no problem, The stalks and dried flower heads of the old plants are always around.
In the summer you can first harvest the tender stems. The lower several inches will be white and ready to eat. If you pull slowly, they will often come loose at the base. Raw, they taste something like cucumber. Cooked, the taste is more like corn. Later, the green flower heads can be cooked and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. By mid-summer the yellow pollen will be falling from the spike atop the flower heads, and can be shaken into a paper bag to use in thickening soups or even mixed with flour for making bread.
In the fall you can still locate the cattail by the old stalks and dig up the rope-like roots that criss-cross the swamps. Clean these, mash them in water and let the mix sit for a few hours. What you’ll get when you pour off the water is a gooey mass of starch at the bottom of the container. This can be used to make a bread of sorts, or just put into emergency soups.
In the winter you can get the roots, just as in the fall, provided the water or mud isn’t frozen. Sometimes you can dig into the muck and find fresh new tips of the plants to eat as well. This is especially true as you get closer to spring.
New plant tips, tender parts of the stalks, flower heads, pollen, and roots – five edible parts, and at least one available in each season. But that’s not all. The “fluff” of the mature flower heads was once used to stuff life jackets, and is still perfect as an emergency insulation. If you are lost and without sufficient clothing, you can fill your jacket with it. Use it to make a warm mattress as well.
Cattail flower head fluff is also very flammable. Break open a mature flower head (available almost any time of the year) and make a pile of it. Then strike a match to it, or even a good spark, and it will burst into flame. The tight heads are often dry inside even after a heavy rain, making this a great survival tinder.
The leaves are long and flat, which makes them easy to weave into simple mats for sitting on. These mats can be used to serve food too, or as a barrier between you and the ground in an emergency shelter. For many centuries they were also woven into baskets and other containers. The stems were used for weaving and other purposes as well.
The common cattail is not only one of the best wild edible plants, but one of the best wilderness plants to know for many other purposes. How many other plant have five edible parts and several parts that are useful for a variety of survival needs? Best of all is the fact that they can be found in wet places across North America. Hikers, backpackers and others who spend time in the wilderness should get to know the cattail before all other plants.