The Cattail: The Greatest of Wild Foods
Note to Reader: The following article is a rewrite of an exhaustive article that “failed to save,” and was subsequently lost. The original article represented over a dozen hours of obsessive digging. While incomplete (as of 2/17/19), there is still much to be learned in the text below. Expect a dramatic expansion of this article in the coming weeks.
You are not likely to find a human being unfamiliar with the sight of cattails. They are landscape characters in the peripheral memories of almost every childhood spent near a fresh body of water, and are, perhaps, THE most versatile feral herbage in terms of continuous human use… of all time.
While the cattail has most recently inspired the ire of Paleo diet adherents for having being found in flour form on grinding stones used a full 20,000 years before the dawn of agriculture  (from what I understand, Paleo people believe that nearly all human food was sourced from animals before the dawn of agriculture and starch consumption is some unnatural modern invention etc). This article has not been written to poke at old wounds. For the purpose of exploration, let us dive a little deeper.
Today we explore cattail’s use as a food, medicine, building material, and pervasive symbol in human art and mythology.
Welcome a world of food and esoteric symbolism; welcome to the world of the cattail.
Family — Typhaceae
Family Characteristics — Typhaceae (Cattail) Family members are widely recognized by their characteristic sausage-shaped flower heads.
Aliases — bulrush, cat’s tail, cattail, corn dog grass, punks, reed, reedmace, swamp sausage, water sausage; AUSTRALIAN ABORIGINAL: cumbungi; CATALAN: balca. MāORI (TE REO): raupō; RUSSIAN: рогоз;
Binomial Etymology— Typha is from the GREEK term Typhe which means “a cat’s tail” .
Binomial Pronunciation: — ˈtaɪfə or TIE-fuh
USDA Native Status — Native
Cattail in Christian Symbolism
While a systematic language for plants was not developed until the 18th century by our venerated, Carolus Linnæus, and colloquial names are notoriously hard to rely on when speaking of plants with any specificity, common names are hardly useless. They trap within them the mysteries our human history, ancestry, folklore, faith, and poetic visions (both collective and respective to our geographic heritage and culture). Let us consider the compound common name for the cattail: reedmace; where did it come from? Where can a simple name lead us?
Origin of the Term “Reedmace”
29 and they folded a crown of thorns, and put on his head, and a reed in his right hand; and they kneeled before him, and scorned him, and said [and the knee bowed before him, they scorned him, saying], Hail, king of Jews.
Mathew 27:29 Wycliffe Translation (1382-1395)
While some English translations substitute “staff” for the “reed” in the Matthew 27:29 passage, I’ve found a full twenty-four translations showing preference to the term “reed,” and only two using the word “staff” (link: here).
The above early English translation of the New Testament— circulated widely in the Middle Ages—mentions a reed being placed in the right hand of Jesus. It was believed by some Christians of the Middle Ages that the specific “reed” was, in fact, the common cattail   . Keep in mind, in colloquialism, belief is important.
In this case, the term, mace is synonymous with scepter (an ornamental staff held by a member of high office). When combined with the term, reed, it distinguishes the cattail as the plant held by Jesus during His suffering (Passionem). While the term reedmace is still in wide use, not many are aware of where it came from.
While many works of art do not depict the reed held by Jesus in much detail (most renditions feature a nondescript reed-like plant), many works show the characteristic sausage-shaped male flower head associated with the cattail. Below are many artistic recreations of the mocking of Jesus showing The Christ holding what appears to be a cattail flower head.
Amazing, right? Well… this is not the first time the cattail played a significant role in our religious lore.
Cattail in Greco-Roman Mythology
According to Ovid’s (43B.C.-17/18A.D.) work, Metamorphoses, a reed—also and oft understood to be the cattail— figures quite prominently into the legend of Pan and his flute, syrinx: the world’s first reed pipe.
Have a seat by the fire, Traveller, and let me tell you a story. Let us take a journey to a faraway place in southern Greece called Nonacris. Here we find a beautiful wood nymph named Syrinx.
Syrinx—of all the wood nymphs—was known as the most beautiful in Nonacris. She pleased the eye of anyone to behold her beauty. She was a marvel, and while this sounds like a blessing, she was prone to attract attention from the wrong kind of eyes: the satyrs.
The satyrs were what were known as “rustic gods” of the woodland areas. These male gods represented the most base and detestable nature of mankind. They were obsessed with carnal pleasure, ritualized insanity, and drunkenness. They donned permanent erections (ithyphallic) , and were believed to be capable of every known incarnation of lewd debauchery you could think of… up to and including rape. Of the satyrs, Pan was perhaps the most notorious.
With a hideous human face, horns, and the hips and legs of a goat , Pan was one satyr a woman would not want to be noticed by.
One day, while Syrinx was descending Mount Lycaeus, Pan (who was wearing a “crown of sharp pine-needles”) laid his grotesque and debauched eyes on her figure.
Pan called out to her.
If Pan called out to you, you were about to be raped. No question about it. In fact, the word, panic, is a direct etymological descendant of Pan’s name. If Pan called out to you, panic is what you did.
Syrinx immediately and wisely panicked and ran upon hearing the lustful bellows of Pan. Being cut off by a river called Landon’s stream, Syrinx called on her sister nymphs to change her her form to save her. Obliging their sister’s plea, the nymphs turned Syrinx into “marsh reeds” at the river’s edge.
As Pan attempted to wrap his horny arms around Syrinx, he found himself in the embrace of reeds instead.
Dejected, the god noticed a plaintive tone coming from the reeds in his arms made by the breeze. The sound pleased and inspired him, and he said “this union, at least, shall I have with thee.”
With that, Pan cut these reeds into unequal sizes, joined them together with wax, and called his instrument, the world’s first Pan flute, syrinx.
Much like the mocking of the Christ, many understood the meaning of “marsh reed” to mean, specifically, the cattail. In further similarity, many depictions of the Pan/Syrinx myth include a bundle of cattails in the arms of Pan, while still others depict nondescript marsh reeds.
Now, why would the Greeks venerate such a vile creature as Pan? Well, it could be true that the above treatment of Pan may be clouded by thousands of years of Christian bent and interpretation of Pan being akin to the devil himself (See: The Demonization of Pan). Nevertheless, the cattail remains an interesting figure in our human faith and folklore.
Can you recall the cattail appearing in the narrative of your own cultural heritage? Please let me know in the comments below.
Cattail Culinary Uses
Native North Americans
Regardless of documentation, numerous—perhaps even all—Native American tribes knew of and utilized the cattail for food. Rather than list each tribe and documented use of Typha as a food like Daniel Moerman already has in his legendary ethnobotanical compendium of use, Native American Ethnobotany (that you can access HERE), I will speak of the way Native Americans used this plant in a way I generally avoid: with a broad brush. This to save us both from reading an eye-wateringly long and redundant list of sexless facts that will be— by nature— incomplete anyhow (i.e. not all tribes were even asked about their uses of Typha).
Native Americans were known to eat cattail rhizomes (roots) both raw and in processed form. They would dry the inner root pith for winter storage, or to create meal/flour for immediate use as a porridge, or in making breads and cakes. These roots would often be studded with white and supple primordial shoots that were consumed both raw or cooked in salted water .
The fleshy inner portions of Spring cattail shoots were also eaten . From experience, I can describe the texture and flavor of cattail shoots: they taste strongly of cucumber with the mouthfeel of onion.
The underdeveloped/green female seedheads were either roasted or boiled in salt water . I can testify that these seedheads have a delicious corn-like flavor with a texture like al dente oats. I have enjoyed these both nibbled like corn on the cob and stripped-from-the-stalk. Either preparation is a fantastic taste journey.
The pollen was collected and used as one would use flour . I have not collected cattail flour in quite a while, but I remember it was bright yellow and very tasty.
The OGALA utilized Typha spp in the creation of wildcrafted diapers (fawnskin lined with the fluffy down of mature cattail flower heads) and menstruation bundles (loincloths lined with the same aforementioned fluffy down) .
People in the southern Balochistan province of modern PAKISTAN utilize the ripe flower down for stuffing cushions/pillows .
The THOMPSON tribe used the fluffy flower heads for stuffing pillows.
The TIWA used the leaf fiber as support in the mud used in thatched roofs .
Cattails in Music
Cattail in Miscelaneous Artworks
 Powers, M. N. (1986). Oglala Women Myth, Ritual and Reality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
 Goodman, S. M., & Ghafoor, A. (1992). The ethnobotany of southern Balochistan, Pakistan : With particular reference to medicinal plants / Steven M. Goodman, Abdul Ghafoor. doi:10.5962/bhl.title.2542
 Teit, J. A., & Steedman, E. V. (1973). Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Seattle, WA: Shorey Book Store.
 Zimdahl, R. L. (1989). Weeds and words: The etymology of the scientific names of weeds and crops. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Pr.
 Moerman, D. E. (2010). Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.
 Callaway, E. (2010, October 18). Stone Age flour found across Europe. Retrieved from https://www.nature.com/news/2010/101018/full/news.2010.549.html
 Mackenzie, J. Stuart Fraser. (1917). Botanical names of the wild flowers. What they mean. How pronounced. London: Holden & Hardingham.
 Freeman, M. B. (1976). The unicorn tapestries. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by E.P. Dutton.
 Moldenke, H. N. (Harold Norman)., Moldenke, A. L. (Alma Lance). (1952). Plants of the Bible. Waltham, Mass.: Chronica Botanica Co.
 Ovid, 4. B.C.-17 or 18 A.D., Miller, F. Justus. (1951). Ovid: Metamorphoses. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
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