With every part of the plant being edible in some way and its distribution nearly universal across North America, the cattail is a good plant to know!
Each and every part of the wonderful, widespread and edible cattail plant (Typha latifolia.) has its use, depending on the season, but today we will talk about the roots.
I use the roots in a several ways--boiling and scraping for "mashed potatoes," soaking to dissolve the starch for use as flour and chopping them to pan-fry like potatoes.
This article will cover finding and harvesting the roots, safety precautions and preparing them to eat.
When to harvest
Cattail roots can be harvested any time of the year. I usually start in September, though it is perhaps not the ideal time to collect these roots, as they will be starchier and fuller later in the fall and into the winter with stored energy that the new plants will use to begin growing in the spring. But, too much later and the cattail swamps up here in the Colorado mountains will not only be frozen, but covered in several feet of snow! The roots provide enough starch to be worthwhile, year-round, and in many areas of the country can be harvested throughout the winter.
Root growth habits and harvesting
Cattail roots grow horizontally beneath the water and mud in areas of slowly flowing or still water, and can be found by digging down with your hand or with a sharp stick near the plants. Once you find a root, most of them no deeper than six inches beneath the mud, begin loosening and pulling it until you feel it coming free. Often you can free one to two foot sections, sometimes longer. Despite being a messy, muddy project, the root harvest is not especially difficult or labor intensive, especially if you have found a cattail patch with a good amount of standing water in it, as this will keep the muddy soil much looser and easier to free the roots from.
Root buds make a tasty snack
Even through the late fall, you will find a few tender white buds sprouting from the roots, and they make for a great snack while you work. No fibers in these, and they taste wonderful, like a very mild, starchy celery. Enjoy!
Freshly pulled root...
The roots will look mucky and black on the outside, but will be clean and starchy, once you cut or break them open.
The roots between small, newly emerged shoots are often the plumpest and easiest to pull, but all are good. You will often find, by feel, one root crisscrossing atop another, and it always pays to feel around in the mud beneath each root you pull, to see if there is another.
All done for the day!
Approximately fifteen pounds of roots, collected in just under an hour of pulling.
Wear old clothes and boots that you don't mind getting muddy when pulling cattail roots, as you will often end up submerged in thick black muck up past your ankles, and with mud splashed up to your elbows. Great fun, though slightly less so when temperatures start getting down near freezing!
Shoots can be eaten raw, as can slices out of younger, less fibrous roots, though the root starch becomes more fully digestible after cooking.
As cattails fairly readily absorb pollutants from the water, take care not to harvest in areas where farm, factory or other runoff may have caused dangerous contamination.
Wild "mashed potatoes," ready to eat!
Boiled and split root, fibers scraped to remove the starch for eating. This starch has a taste and consistency very much like mashed potatoes, only "smoother," and is equally filling!
Roots sliced and fried up just like potatoes, with eggs!
It is impossible to salvage all of the starch by scraping like this, so I will save the scraped roots to process for making flour.
Cattails grow in almost all areas of the country, from the sub alpine wilderness to the lowland suburbs, and can provide large quantities of food and other useful materials.
Books to help you identify, harvest and use wild edible plants - A healthy (and free!) way to add some variety to your diet...
All photos taken by the author, unless otherwise noted.
Tell us about it!
How have you used cattail roots, other parts of the plant or other wild edible plants? - Do you have any favorite methods of harvesting and/or preparing them?
Tess on February 18, 2018:
I made some cattail "pancakes" from the scraped starch last year, a little local maple syrup and they were delicious!
windwalker on July 26, 2016:
I enjoy the young plants or the hearts of mature plants. Boiling them till tender they remind me of Asparagus.
Jan on February 27, 2016:
we have loads of cattails in Missouri. As kids we soaked the tops in kerosine and ran around acting like 'native americans.' ahem..' We also decorate with them, lovely bouquets for fall. Unless you have a cat. A cat will 'play' with the tops until your house is covered in about a foot of fluffy cattail top. The tops come off the stalk and you could stuff pillows with the resulting 'fluff'.
anonymous on August 09, 2013:
gay fuccing bich.............. FUCC YOU
anonymous on August 09, 2013:
great job! i love tail! fuckre!
Jogalog on February 21, 2013:
I've never used these. I wish I knew more about wild foods though as I would love to get out foraging in the countryside.
anonymous on December 28, 2012:
Photos are not showing up for me either and I would love to see them. Is it on my end or yours? If yours, can you fix it? Thanks.
anonymous on October 19, 2012:
Is it possible for you to add the rest of the photos? I'd really like to see how you do up the cattail food. Been meaning to try these. Am very interested in the flour. What is the flour comparable to if I were to sub some into a recipe?
anonymous on September 07, 2012:
I would love to try this, but sadly in Florida harvesting cat tails is illegal. But if a life or death situation develops, I'm all over it lol.
anonymous on June 29, 2012:
Cattail roots are a lot like eating potatoes. :)
( BTW, some pictures are missing. )
xriotdotbiz lm on May 02, 2012:
I really appreciate this lens as I have read my whole life about cat tails being edible but they never show how. Love all the photos. Know exactly where I am going to dig some roots!
Steve and Annette on May 02, 2012:
I grew up in Oregon which has a lot of edible plants - we were always eating something as we romped through the woods: berries, sour grass, etc. I've never tried cattails.
belinda342 on May 02, 2012:
These grow like crazy where I work. I'll have to harvest a few and try them out. Thanks!
E L Seaton from Virginia on April 27, 2012:
I love the idea of a cattail omlette! Goooood stuff!
Itaya Lightbourne from Topeka, KS on April 24, 2012:
Another awesome article sharing food grown in the wild that can be eaten! I had no idea cattail roots could be eaten. Well done article. :)
Chuck Nelson from California on April 23, 2012:
I grew up on a ranch with a river and lots of cattails. I had heard you could eat them but never knew how until now. Very interesting.
MelonyVaughan on April 22, 2012:
I always enjoy reading your lenses. You are very knowledgeable and you literally make my mouth water with excellent descriptions of how these plants taste and how to cook them! =)
anonymous on March 04, 2012:
I like to hike and my best friend and I would like to plan another trip together, taking as little with us as possible. So checking out info on food to get in the wild. Great lens. Thanks for the info. This would make a good ingredient for stone soup.
Susanna Duffy from Melbourne Australia on March 01, 2012:
We don't have cattail plants to get the cattail roots in Australia but you've made me determined to find something similar. We must have wild edible roots! It's a matter of national pride now
Thailandinfo on February 11, 2012:
I would have never guessed to eat that, thanks for the education.
Einar A (author) on February 01, 2012:
@DebMartin: That sounds so good! They really do taste like potatoes when cooked up that way, though a bit more fibrous. In most preparation methods--boiling and scraping, collecting the starch for flour--the fibers are removed, but by slicing them thinly before frying, they can be left in and eaten.
DebMartin on February 01, 2012:
I really must try this. So many cattails around here. I saw in one of your other lenses that you sometimes fry the roots like one would potatoes. I want to try that with a fresh-caught fish!
anonymous on January 30, 2012:
Fascinating once again and I sure appreciate your warning to folks to only gather cattail roots from areas that are not polluted because they do absorb the pollutants so readily.
bjslapidary on January 30, 2012:
I've always known that the cattail is a useful plant, but have never tried it. I like how you show how to harvest the roots. Always wondered about how this was done. Thanks for sharing.
julieannbrady on January 26, 2012:
I had literally no idea that cattail roots looked like that and that you could eat them! Pretty amazing stuff.
dwnovacek on January 15, 2012:
Beautifully presented and so informational! Angel Blessed!
irenemaria from Sweden on January 12, 2012:
I would love to try this root! Have not heard about it before. Thanks
hysongdesigns on December 28, 2011:
I've always known you could eat them but hadn't tried doing it yet. Thanks for such great detailed info on how to eat Cattail roots!
flicker lm on December 27, 2011:
The only cattails I have on my property are right near the road, so haven't tried eating any due to the pollution from the cars. I have used the fluff for tinder.