Cattails provide food, shelter, fuel, medicine and more.
This Swiss Army knife of plants plays an important role in Native American cultures throughout the country. Starting in April, a class at Hans Herr House and Museum will dig into this plant’s history and culture. Students will gather cattails and learn how to weave the leaves into a mat.
“The plant is truly one of the Creator’s great gifts,” says MaryAnn Robins, who will lead the class.
Robins grew up on the Onondaga Reservation near Syracuse and now lives in Conestoga Township. She’s president of Circle Legacy Center, a group that supports and empowers Native Americans and provides education.
The center works with Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society to create programming and the longhouse on the homestead.
When the Herrs arrived to the area in 1710, they would have interacted with Native Americans, says Tiffany Fisk, administrator for the site. That should be part of programming to tell a more complete story.
Fisk is leading a sold-out hearth cooking class in May.
“The native trades and skills also need to be talked about,” she says. “And in this case something like cattails, here’s a native plant that grows and it would have been in this area with all of the creeks and waterways that we have. This is how you can use this plant.”
The longhouse was a place for family and an opportunity to share more about food and gardening, Robins says. Joann McLaughlin, vice president of the center, started by planting a demonstration three sisters garden with beans, corn and squash. However, before last year’s garden could be planted, COVID-19 shut down much of life.
The class on cattails marks the first of this type of programming to the site.
This conversation with Robins has been edited for clarity and length.
How did this class come about?
I previously had worked at the Wampanoag history program in Plymouth, Massachusetts (at the Plimoth Plantation living history museum) and that is something that I truly enjoyed because it’s hands-on. It’s outdoors. It’s very cathartic to have your hands working on that and the value that people can see coming from a plant. It does give credence to the fact that we waste nothing.
There are different types of cattails such as broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia). Are you focusing on a specific type?
Yes. The leaves on the broadleaf, because they are wider, they will make a more durable and wider mat. It take less labor to make a wide leaf mat.
The cattails that you’re going to be using, are they at the Hans Herr house and the longhouse?
No. We will have to go and gather them. There’s one place I was given permission to gather. We will be going there.
Cattails have different associations in different Native American cultures. Are you going to address a specific group during these classes?
They were widely used by the Huron. Their babies were put on soft down and that comes from the taller part, the part that’s referred to as the hot dog. They could make small mattresses out of it.
The Ojibwa would crush, chew and apply them to sores. The Abenaki would make infusions including edible soups, broths and eat the roots. The Wampanoag would use them to dry food. They would take flat mats (of cattails) and dry food.
What do cattails mean to you?
Cattails are in all areas of native life. They are a gift from the Creator. It feeds us, and it provides us with shelter. It provides us with a place to dry our fruit. It’s a beautiful plant to look at.
I enjoy just being able to stroke the leaves and feel. It’s more of a sensory thing. The plant is important in those ways. It does so much and provides so much.
The last two classes will focus on making mats from the leaves. Why did you want this to be part of the session?
It’s something that they can actually see, that they can utilize. And they can understand how we complete the journey with the plant.
Is it ever complete?
It’s complete when it’s woven and put in the home.
What do you want people to take away from this series?
The sense that nothing should be wasted. If you really research before throwing something away, there’s always a use.
People just see it as a cattail. They don’t do anything else with it. You can make cordage. You can do so much with that plant.