Cattail is a ubiquitous plant that grows near many bodies of water, and can prove useful to the survivor in many ways. The roots and inner stalks of the plant are edible, as is the distinctive flower head if harvested early enough in the season. The roots and stem can be eaten raw or boiled, while the flower head can be cooked over fire like corn.
Flour can be harvested from parts of the plant (if the survivor is very determined to make bread), the whole plant can be used as a thatching or matting for structures, and the flowerhead can also be set aflame and used as a torch (it acts like a wick, but would need oil or something flammable as fuel).
Two species of cattail are commonly found in the Midwest; Broad-leafed Cattail and Narrow-leafed Cattail (Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia, respectively). The former is native, whereas the latter was introduced from Europe, but for our purposes they are extremely similar.
Cattail may be one of the primary plants used by survivors in the post-apocalyptic world, due to its plethora of utilities and its widespread prevalence. Also, many survivors will have to seek out fresh drinking water, and in their search they will most likely encounter Typha as well. Cattail in urban areas, however, may contain pollutants and toxins from urban runoff, and the survivor may prefer to harvest cattails in more rural or wild settings.
Landscape Architects notes:
Key identifying characteristics: Cattail grows up to 5 to 10 feet tall with long, flat, erect, glabrous, spearlike leaves growing vertically from the base. The flower head is distinctive with its “hot dog”-like pistilate section and stamen protruding
Habitat/plant community: Cattails thrive in moist environments, often bordering water bodies like ponds, lakes, rivers, canals, and ditches, often in communities with bur reed and various grasses.
Light requirements: Full sun.
Soils: Grows in very wet soils, often in shallow water. Prefers low-salinity environments.
Moisture requirements: Prefers very wet environments, growing in water as deep as 32 inches.
Environmental sensitivities: Can tolerate flooding, reduced soil conditions, moderate salinity.
Functional/design uses: Often considered invasive/weedy, but can be used as a bioremediator. Typha is edible and has also been used as thatching, insulation, and as a torch.
Planting techniques: May be planted from rootstock, from seedlings, or be directly seeded (if there is no moving water).