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Food and Cooking

Edible plants video: How to tell look-alike poison iris from cattails

Edible plants video: How to tell look-alike poison iris from cattails

You won’t starve in the wilderness if you can find cattails. Every part of the plant is edible. But don’t mistake a toxic look-alike, the poison iris, for the edible plant. Here is how to tell the difference.

by Leon Pantenburg

Look for the cattail head, regardless of the time of year. Toxic iris plants' leaves resemble the cattail's, but the iris don't have a similar head.

Look for the cattail head, regardless of the time of year. Toxic iris plants’ leaves resemble the cattail’s, but the iris don’t have a similar head.

Cattails have long been called the “survival supermarket,” because all parts are edible. If you look around, chances are you’ll find patches

of cattails in just about any swampy area. Paradoxically, the cattail may be one of the most prolific plants in desert areas. All cattails require is a constant source of moisture.

But there is a dangerous look-alike, called the Iris, which sometimes grows in the same swampy areas. Know the difference before you eat anything.

A rule of thumb is to look for the distinctive cigar-shaped head. The iris don’t have those. If you see a patch of what appears to be cattails, but there are no cigar heads, the plants may be irises.

This is an iris plant. (Thanks to Carol, an avid gardener, for sending this in!)

This is an iris plant. (Thanks to Carol, an avid gardener, for sending this in!)

     The iris is a common flowering plant that grows from rhizomes or bulbs, according to rightdiagnosis.com. The rhizomes or bulbs contain a toxic chemical called irisin which can cause various symptoms if ingested.

Irises are considered to have low toxicity and skin irritation upon skin exposure is usually mild.   Here are the symptoms of iris poisoning:

If you’re lost overnight, chances are you won’t need to forage for food. But if you get to the point where you need to get some sort of sustenance, look for the cattail head. Don’t ingest any  plant unless you are positive it is safe.

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View Comments (17)


  1. Leon

    07/16/2016 at 09:27

    Solutions? I don’t have any. Whenever I find out about plagiarism, I contact the thief and demand the material be removed. I also keep an eye out for my peers’ work, and if I see it on a sketchy site, I tell them. Other than that, there isn’t a lot that can be done.

  2. Pearl

    07/15/2016 at 16:43

    With havin so much content and articles do you ever run into any problems of plagorism or copyright
    infringement? My blog has a lot of completely unique content I’ve either authored myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the
    internet without my permission. Do you know any solutions to help protect against content from being stolen? I’d
    definitely appreciate it.

  3. Leon

    06/23/2016 at 06:47

    I don’t know. I’d suggest contacting your county extension agent for an answer.

  4. Susie

    06/21/2016 at 14:07

    Just read that Iris are poisonous to cattle. Is this true?

  5. Leon

    05/14/2016 at 11:34

    Thanks! I added the photo to the story. It really clears up some questions!

  6. Jen

    04/28/2016 at 16:41

    Ok, I am not trying to be rude, but as a long time gardener, I have no idea how anyone could mistake the two. Charles is right. The way the leaves protrude are completely different. Familiarize yourself with an iris plant and you will never mistake the two. An iris has a very distinctive flat, fanned method of growth.

  7. Leon

    04/25/2016 at 16:42

    No cigar head = no use.

  8. Angie

    04/25/2016 at 09:38

    I appreciate all the work, time and effort you put into making this video. However, after watching that I’m still unsure which is which. =( Any chance on making an updated video? I would have loved the images to have been labeled and then a side-by-side comparison as has already been mentioned would be excellent.

  9. Leon

    04/24/2016 at 09:09

    Problem is – they look so much alike. Rule of thumb: If you don’t see the cigar heads, don’t use the plant.

  10. Sd

    04/23/2016 at 06:57

    I agree, side by side photos would have helped, I still don’t know which is which either, in case of an apocalypse, I should know this!

  11. Leon

    01/01/2015 at 21:22


  12. Charles

    12/19/2014 at 13:37

    The main difference between the iris and cattail is in the flat leaves each plant has. The iris leaves grow flat from the stalk, while the cattail leaves are wrapped around the stalk then grow upward and flat This helps in identifying the plant in the winter also when there are no cigar shaped heads. Hope this helps.

  13. Leon

    09/04/2014 at 08:57

    That’s the problem – they DO look alike. The rule of thumb is that if the plant has the cigar seedhead, it is a cattail. Without the head – beware.

  14. Don

    09/03/2014 at 18:53

    I agree with Ben. They both looked alike to me in the video.

  15. Leon

    08/21/2014 at 18:51

    If there isn’t a cigar head on the plant, beware, it may be the poisonous variety.

  16. Ben Miles

    08/21/2014 at 13:09

    You should have shown photos of both plants so we can know for sure which one is which! I still don’t know the differences between the two plants you have spoken about!

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Food and Cooking

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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