Today was an exceptionally pleasant winter day for Northeast Ohio, with clear sunny skies and a temperature in the twenties. We had a brief warm-up last week which melted most of the snow, and although I enjoy the frigid winter, I also took advantage of the eased travel and work which this milder weather provides. So, I decided to take the dog, my Schrade X-timer camp knife, and Swedish Firesteel on a journey to test out some natural tinders.
For the first trial, I gathered some dead leaves that remained clinging to standing saplings, a few feet off of the ground. I mixed these with similar leaves from woody plants (weeds, essentially) and the fluffy "seeds" which abundantly fill out the top of the plant (like wheat). I took this assemblage, and ground it finely between my palms, forming a tinder pile over a pre-assembled base of wood, which elevated it above the damp ground. This pile was difficult to light, and it took a couple dozen sparkings with the ferrocium rod to achieve any lasting embers. Eventually it produced a flame, which took to kindling with ease.
The second trial began with a base layer of dried grass blades, again ground through the palms. Once a decent "nest" effect was established, I sprinkled shavings of dried pine resin from a nearby tree on top. This mixture was much more difficult to light (I've never had much luck with grasses as tinder) and the most I was able to achieve were very small, fleeting embers.
For the last trial, I used cattail fluff. I had first tried this method last winter in a snowstorm, and was really impressed with the results. About half of a cattail will provide a rather large tinder nest when fluffed. You want the bundle lofty, but just tight enough that it stills binds together. One spark with the Firesteel is all it takes to get a crackling ripple of flame traversing the entire pile. It burns very quickly, so it's a good idea to have other tinder or fine kindling mixed into the pile. Another thing I discovered today is that you can stir the cattail tinder with a stick as it blazes, and it will stay lit. The trick seems to be to maintain a certain amount of loft. The beauty is that the cattail only singes on the outermost portion, so you can fluff it out and relight it over and over again. This is by far my favorite of the natural tinder methods I've tried so far. The video below illustrates the use of cattail as a tinder.
I find that this sort of practice really comes in handy when you are camping or backpacking, and must genuinely start a fire for necessity's sake. It's certainly not a bad idea to get a solid foundation for these essential skills so you don't need to rely upon unnecessary experimentation when time and energy are at stake.