PUYP!: THE ETHNOBOTANY OF FORAGED FOOD & PECULIAR PRODUCE

The Cattail: The Greatest of Wild Foods

The Cattail: The Greatest of Wild Foods

Typha spp.

Anthonis_van_Dyck_004.jpg

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 [6] (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 EtymologyTypha is from the GREEK term Typhe which means “a cat’s tail” [4].

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 [8] [9] [10]. 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.

Christ Crowned with Thorns    by   Anthony van Dyck 1619-1620. Image in the Public Domain [6]

Christ Crowned with Thorns by Anthony van Dyck 1619-1620. Image in the Public Domain [6]

The Mocking of Christ Painted by Franz Fallenter (1594).  This picture is, perhaps, one of the more ambiguous examples. Image in the Public domain.

The Mocking of Christ Painted by Franz Fallenter (1594). This picture is, perhaps, one of the more ambiguous examples. Image in the Public domain.

La Pratique de l'Aiguille, page 9 (recto) 1605:  An engraving of Jesus with His crown of thorns sitting on a sepulcher.

La Pratique de l'Aiguille, page 9 (recto) 1605: An engraving of Jesus with His crown of thorns sitting on a sepulcher.

The mocking and flagellation of Christ ; he is crowned with thorns and handed a reed as a mock sceptre. Line engraving by S.A. Bolswert after A. van Dyck. Credit:  Wellcome Collection .  CC BY

The mocking and flagellation of Christ; he is crowned with thorns and handed a reed as a mock sceptre. Line engraving by S.A. Bolswert after A. van Dyck. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Christ is paraded before the people wearing a crown of thorns . Etching by F.P. Massau after J.F. Overbeck, 1848. Credit:  Wellcome Collection .  CC BY

Christ is paraded before the people wearing a crown of thorns. Etching by F.P. Massau after J.F. Overbeck, 1848. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY

Amazing, right? Well… this is not the first time the cattail played a significant role in our religious lore.

Cattail in Greco-Roman Mythology

Trigger warning* This legend contains a graphic story including attempted rape.

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. We will 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 eyes of satyrs.

The satyrs were what were known as “rustic gods” of the woodland areas. These male gods represented the most base and detestable potential of mankind. They were obsessed with carnal pleasure, ritualized insanity, and drunkenness. They donned permanent (ithyphallic) erections [12], and were believed to be capable of every known incarnation of lewd debauchery you could think of. While the satyrs symbolized everything that can happen to the heart of a man when left to fester and rot… Pan was the most notorious.

With a hideous human face, horns, the hips and legs of a goat [13], and an insatiable appetite for rape, Pan was the very last satyr a beautiful woman would want to come across while out on a stroll.

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.

NOT. GOOD.

When Pan catcalled, you were about to be raped. No question about it. In fact, our word, PANic, comes directly from the legend of Pan. If Pan called out to you, panic is what you did.

Syrinx immediately -and wisely- ran in a panic upon hearing Pan’s voice. She ran as fast as her legs would carry her, but Pan was closing in.

Being cut off by a river called Landon’s stream, Syrinx desperately 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.

Just in time.

As Pan seized Syrinx in his arms, she metamorphosed, and Pan found himself fiendishly ramming his goat phallus into nothing more than an armload of cattails.

Defeated, the god noticed a plaintive tone coming from the reeds in his arms made by the breeze. The sound pleased him. His goat-beard dripping with saliva, he ejaculated the words: “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, syrinx.

This was said to be the invention of the Pan flute.

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.

Pan and Syrinx.  This French painting created by   Jean-François de Troy within the years 1722 - 1724 is housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Image in the Public Domain and can be accessed     HERE  .

Pan and Syrinx. This French painting created by Jean-François de Troy within the years 1722 - 1724 is housed at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Image in the Public Domain and can be accessed HERE.

Patience, please. I had downloaded this image under Creative Commons licensure, however, having lost the original article… I lost the attribution.

Patience, please. I had downloaded this image under Creative Commons licensure, however, having lost the original article… I lost the attribution.

Patience, please. I had downloaded this image under Creative Commons licensure, however, having lost the original article… I lost the attribution. You may have to strain your eyes to see the cattail flower heads in this image, but they are there!

Patience, please. I had downloaded this image under Creative Commons licensure, however, having lost the original article… I lost the attribution. You may have to strain your eyes to see the cattail flower heads in this image, but they are there!

Now, why would the Greeks venerate such a vile creature as Pan? 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 [5].

The fleshy inner portions of Spring cattail shoots were also eaten [5]. 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 [5]. 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 [5]. I have not collected cattail flour in quite a while, but I remember it was bright yellow and very tasty.

Cattail Ethnobotany

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) [1].

People in the southern Balochistan province of modern PAKISTAN utilize the ripe flower down for stuffing cushions/pillows [2].

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 [5].

Cattails in Music

Cattail in Miscelaneous Artworks

Cylindrical vase with cattail motif.  This bone china piece- created by Milton in the 1860’s- features a cattail motif and is housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Image in the Public domain and accessed  HERE .

Cylindrical vase with cattail motif. This bone china piece- created by Milton in the 1860’s- features a cattail motif and is housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC. Image in the Public domain and accessed HERE.

Bird's Nest in Cattails.  Painted in 1875 by Fidelia Bridges using watercolor and gouache. This painting is housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image in the Public Domain and can be accessed  HERE .

Bird's Nest in Cattails. Painted in 1875 by Fidelia Bridges using watercolor and gouache. This painting is housed at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image in the Public Domain and can be accessed HERE.

Cattail Videos

[1] Powers, M. N. (1986). Oglala Women Myth, Ritual and Reality. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[2] 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

[3] Teit, J. A., & Steedman, E. V. (1973). Ethnobotany of the Thompson Indians of British Columbia. Seattle, WA: Shorey Book Store.

[4] Zimdahl, R. L. (1989). Weeds and words: The etymology of the scientific names of weeds and crops. Ames: Iowa State Univ. Pr.

[5] Moerman, D. E. (2010). Native American ethnobotany. Portland, Or.: Timber Press.

[6] 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

[7] Mackenzie, J. Stuart Fraser. (1917). Botanical names of the wild flowers. What they mean. How pronounced. London: Holden & Hardingham.

[8] https://www.museodelprado.es/en/the-collection/online-gallery/on-line-gallery/obra/the-crown-of-thorns/

[9] Freeman, M. B. (1976). The unicorn tapestries. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, distributed by E.P. Dutton.

[10] Moldenke, H. N. (Harold Norman)., Moldenke, A. L. (Alma Lance). (1952). Plants of the Bible. Waltham, Mass.: Chronica Botanica Co.

[11] Ovid, 4. B.C.-17 or 18 A.D., Miller, F. Justus. (1951). Ovid: Metamorphoses. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

[12] https://tigerweb.towson.edu/jkessl3/Mythological/satyr.html

[13] http://www.classics.upenn.edu/myth/php/tools/dictionary.php?regexp=PAN&method=standard

Pull Up Your Plants! (PUYP) is now receiving visits from all over the world. Please take the time to leave a comment or subscribe below. I’d like to hear about your knowledge and experiences with the cattail.

For source citations, please email Kevin Healey at

pullupyourplants.   @   gmail.com

With Love,

Kevin. 




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