A New Jersey tradition: Burning cattails to keep the mosquitoes away

Many people who grew up in New Jersey in the '70s, '80s and '90s may remember a summertime tradition of burning punks, also called cattails, to help keep mosquitoes away.

News 12 Staff

Jul 15, 2020, 11:53 PM

Updated 1,367 days ago

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Many people who grew up in New Jersey in the '70s, '80s and '90s may remember a summertime tradition of burning punks, also called cattails, to help keep mosquitoes away.
News 12 New Jersey’s Brian Donohue reflected on the tradition and set out to find its origin.
The plants typically grow in marshy, swampy areas and on roadside ditches. Dry them out and burn them and the smoke would keep bugs away during the evening.
Donohue says that the fact that he found a bunch of cattails out in the open by a baseball field shows that the tradition is dying out. He says that this was a perfect spot to pick cattails. Back when he was young, those would have been picked clean early on in the summer.
Donohue says that he recently learned that the tradition of burning punks dates back hundreds, if not thousands, of years. European settlers learned about it from the native Lenape people.
Donohue took a ride out to Ringwood to meet with Marcey Langhorne of the Ramapough Lenape tribe. Langhorne is the educator for the tribe and her native name means Tree in the Wind. She visits schools and other places to educate people and share Lenape culture.
“I like getting our culture out there to let people know we’re still here,” she says.
The Lenape used cattails for practically everything.
“You pull these down and this inside…there are little jelly packets. You mush it a bit and the gel would come out. Put it on a cut to seal it like a Band-Aid,” Langhorne says.
Cattails were also used for weaving mats and baskets, as stuffing for cushions and bedding, and even for food.
“The roots are edible. If you take the roots and peel them like two or three layers and you mash them up, it’s like flour,” she says.
They were also used as torches ... and even to keep bugs away.


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