It’s early spring, and the new green shoots of this year’s cattails are just getting started underwater, and aren’t yet visible. But the remains of last autumn’s cattail crop still stand, poking out of the cold water. Weathered by the winter, the cattails turn to fluff in my hands.
You can only get the fluff during certain times of the year. The brown, fuzzy cattail is the flower and seedhead for the cattail plant. During different times in the plant’s lifecycle, it takes different forms: producing pollen, and eventually maturing into fluff, that releases itself to plant more seeds, and eventually biodegrades. Cattail fluff is a fall and early-spring occurrence.
I have never personally worked with cattail fluff. It is soft and absorbent, and I know that traditionally, people use it for diapers and menstrual pads, among other things.
In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer has a great description of introducing her students to a cattail marsh, describing it as a superstore supplying all our needs, from shelter to food.
You can’t usually get everything a cattail stand has to offer all on the same day, due to the seasonality of each of the plant parts. But over the course of a growing season, this plant will supply many of our needs. As the fluff biodegrades and falls away, the next offering of the cattail plant emerges: the tender, young edible bamboo-like cattail shoots of early spring.