Nature Nearby: A giant native supermarket and water purifier

September 23, 2015

Cattails grow locally in Magruder Park. Photo courtesy Fred Seitz.
FRED SEITZ —

BY FRED SEITZ —

The end of summer is a good time to take a walk around Magruder Park and notice the giant (7 or 8 feett tall) cattails growing in the drainage ditches. These amazing plants, native to marshes in Europe and parts of Asia and the Americas, are a favorite of survival preppers and those who favor cleaning our pollutants from our water.

Dubbed the “supermarket of the swamp” by the late outdoorsman Euell Gibbons in the 1970s, the plants have many edible parts that can be eaten directly in the field. Those inclined towards more involved food preparation can bring the plants home and make them into flour.

But bulrushes (as they are also called) were used for food long before Gibbons recognized their value. Their flour was used by Native Americans and other indigenous peoples.

The plants’ leaves have been used to make chair seats and the “down” has been used for insulation, bedding, and for the flotation material in boat vests. The down has also been a longstanding source of tinder for campers and others in the wilderness. The leaves were briefly used to make paper, but the cost of production terminated that endeavor.

One of the plants’ most recent and “modern” uses is in bioremediation, as cattails are excellent at taking up toxic substances and other pollutants from water and biofuels. As the plants grow in marshy areas, they are perfectly situated  to clean runoff. Unfortunately, that can mean absorbing toxins such as arsenic. For this reason, consumption of local cattails in the drainage ditches may not be wise.

The plants aren’t perfect: the rapid proliferation of cattails in marshy areas has displaced other species.  However, because they’re fast growing and hardy, they do provide a source of starches for making ethanol, adding to their potential benefits for people.

One final important use for one local resident is the fact that cattails are a very popular nesting spot for red-winged blackbirds. While not providing us with food, fuel or furnishings, the birds do serenade passers by in the park and flash us glimpses of their scarlet striped wings.