Wild Edibles – Cattails

Editor’s Note: Imagine yourself suddenly in the wilds, and you’ve run out of food. Where do you start? You’ve heard cattails are edible. But when? And which parts? The following info from Craig Caudill will help you know more about this common survival food. – John





When in a given survival situation in the wilderness, aside from maintaining your core body temp and finding or cleaning water, food is the next essential that you should be looking for. As discussed in our previous article the first choice for survival food would be plant material that contains a sufficient amount if nutrition and calories. One of these viable food options freely available the outdoors are cattails, dandelions, chickweed, wood sorrel, and plantain. In this article we are going to focus our attention on cattails.

Cattails are a reliable food source being widely available throughout most regions of the United States. Another great thing about them is that practically all their parts are edible even during varying seasons. Cattails can be easily distinguished by the downy and brown heads that resemble large brown hot dogs. These same downy heads in the spring would appear green and have rows of seeds on them. They provide a lot of nutrition and taste even better when slightly roasted.

Take note that harvesting cattails during the spring season may be harder since most plant lookalikes have green shoots that can be mistaken for cattails. I’d like to add a word of caution, since a lot of plants that may have toxic substances tend to look like cattails, particularly during the end of the winter seasons, when they all tend to have green shoots. It takes some guidance and practice to be able to accurately distinguish cattails from look-alikes. It is also not advisable to get into the water to harvest cattails during the cold season as this violates one of the Law of Threes, which is to maintain your core body temperature.

Cattail roots can be harvested and eaten and they will provide a good source of carbohydrates that is essential in any survival situation. Simply cut through the mucky root portion of the cattail to expose the clean white material underneath. This white material is starchy and will provide some carbohydrates you might need during a survival situation.

Although plant foods have some carbohydrates in them, it is not enough to compensate for the extra effort if you will have some difficulty in harvesting them. This simply means that if you will expend more energy harvesting the plant, and the plant will not be able to supply you with vast amounts of carbohydrates and calories, then the purpose of harvesting it for nutrition is a “self defeating” effort. Remember, in a given survival situation always balance calorie expenditure with calorie intake.


Craig Caudill teaches about camping gear supplies and how to use them in the great outdoors. He is a regular contributor to Dan’s Depot and chief instructor at the Nature Reliance School.


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