When I picture a wetland area, one of the first things I conjure are cattails, with their thick brown seed heads and long blade-shaped leaves — such a countryside classic. Of course, it need not be a marsh or a swamp to have cattails. A roadside ditch, seep, depression, or anywhere standing water is present for much of the year will support this prolific plant of many uses.
The name cattail comes from the distinctive, thick brown cluster of female flowers that are borne on a spike near the top of the plant, giving it the appearance of a cat’s tail.
There are numerous cattail species worldwide. In North America, the most widespread and abundant species are the broad-leaf cattail (Typha latifolia), the narrow-leaf cattail (Typha angustifolia), and the southern cattail (Typha domingensis). Throughout much of the northern United States and Canada, the broad-leaf and narrow-leaf cattails hybridize to produce what botanists call Typha x glauca. While the broad-leaf and the southern cattails are native to North America, the narrow-leaf cattail is believed to have been introduced from Europe.
Like most plants in any naturally occurring stand, the cattail provides an important service to the areas it inhabits, and it can be a wonderfully useful resource for the small acreage owner, if you keep the plants in check.
Distribution and appearance
Broad-leaf cattails are found from northern Canada and Alaska to Florida. The other species along with the hybrid form are more restricted in their range. The hybrid cattail and the narrow-leaf cattail are found mostly in the central and eastern United States, where they have become pests by invading wetland areas and establishing huge pure stands, choking out other species of wetland plants. One major problem for the nonbotanist is distinguishing between the native and non-native species.
Cattails produce separate male and female flowers on the same plant. The female flowers, called pistillate flowers, grow on a long spike and form a thick, velvety-brown cluster of hundreds of small individual flowers. The male, or staminate flowers, grow just above the female flowers and produce the pollen. One of the distinctive traits of the broad-leaf cattail is that the pistillate and staminate flowers are right next to each other on the spike. In the non-native species, they are separated on the spike by 1 to 4 inches.
The leaves of all species of cattails look like large blades of grass. Broad-leaf cattail leaves are longer than the spike that carries the flowers and can reach lengths of 6 to 7 feet. As the name implies, their leaf blades are the widest of all the North American species, reaching up to 1 inch in width. Narrow-leaf and hybrid cattail leaves are considerably narrower, being only a few millimeters wide.
While cattails can reproduce from seed, they also can reproduce asexually — without fertilization of the egg by sperm cells — through new spikes and leaves sprouting from “rhizomes.” Rhizomes are extensions of the stem that grow underground. As the rhizomes grow, new sprouts arise from them. In this way, a single plant can expand to cover a wide area of available habitat with clones of itself, and it’s this rhizome reproduction that can make unwanted extensive stands occur.
Bird nests and good food
Cattails have a variety of uses, both for wildlife and people. They are a favorite food of the introduced aquatic rodent, the nutria, as well as the native muskrat. The fluffy seeds of cattails are not only eaten by a wide range of birds, they are also used, along with the leaves, as nesting material for many waterfowl and even alligators. Redwing and yellow-headed blackbirds frequently build their nests in cattail stands, and these same stands provide critical escape cover for numerous species of wetlands birds, mammals, amphibians and reptiles.
Humans have made use of cattails for numerous purposes for thousands of years. Virtually every part of the cattail is edible, and people continue to use it for food even today. Before the cattail plant produces flowers, the shoots, sometimes called “wild asparagus,” can be eaten either raw or cooked. The rhizomes also can be eaten as a source of starch or pounded into a type of flour. Pollen from the male flowers can be taken as a source of minerals and enzymes, just like commercial varieties of so-called “bee pollen.”
Cattail leaves have traditionally been woven into baskets, hats and mats, and used to thatch roofs. One common use of cattail flower heads, stalks and leaves is to dry them and use them in flower arrangements and for decorations. Because of their high tolerance for certain pollutants, such as lead, cattails have been used as part of wastewater treatment operations for both industrial waste and municipal sewage.
Since cattails can grow prolifically from their underground rhizomes, limited harvesting of flowers, pollen, stems or leaves will not have a long-term detrimental effect on a stand of plants. This lends itself to the possibility of using cattails as a source of “biofuels.” Some studies suggest significantly more ethanol fuel can be produced from cattails than from corn, thus eliminating the problem of using a food crop to produce fuel. Since cattails grow in wetlands, using them to produce biofuels would create an incentive to protect and even restore wetlands. One of the keys, of course, would be to promote the use of native cattails and not encourage the spread of invasive species.
Cattails can be established in a pond or lake either naturally — by wind or animals dispersing the seeds — or by planting nursery stock. While cattails require water to grow, they will not become established if the water is too deep (they prefer about 18 inches or less). Once established, however, cattails can extend their rhizomes out into deeper water by floating above the surface. This can rapidly get out of hand, and large, dense stands of cattails can take over most any farm pond.
More likely to be an issue for the small farm-pond owner, keeping cattails in check can be done in a variety of ways, including cutting, dredging, manipulating water levels at critical times of the year, or herbicides. In areas where the landowner wants to maintain cattails, the plants should only be cut once, during late summer. In areas where cattails need to be removed, they should be cut below the water line several times per year. This deprives the rhizomes of nutrients and eventually will cause the plant to die.
On water bodies with extensive stands of cattails, dredging may be necessary. This physically removes rhizomes, roots and soil, and deepens the edges of the pond or lake, making it less attractive habitat for cattails. Dredging, however, can be quite expensive and time-consuming, and if done incorrectly, can cause severe damage to other aquatic inhabitants, including fish, frogs and turtles.
Water levels can be manipulated in a variety of ways to control cattail stands. Lowering water levels during the growing season will dry out the roots, causing the plants to die. Also, drawing down water levels during the winter may cause the roots to freeze. In some cases, water levels can be raised so as to deprive the roots of oxygen.
Manipulation of water levels also can cause damage to other aquatic life. A landowner considering this type of control measure for cattails should consult with his local Cooperative Extension Service office or the state Natural Resources Conservation Service office (U.S. Department of Agriculture).
Specialty herbicides are made to control aquatic plants. These should be used with extreme caution since some of them also may be toxic to fish and wildlife. Any use of herbicides should be done only after consultation with appropriate state agencies (usually environmental or agricultural). Some states require that certain types of herbicides be applied only by licensed applicators.
The native cattail species can be a welcome addition to a farm pond, lake or even wet meadow. They can provide food and cover for wildlife, as well as a wide range of interesting and useful products for human use. Like any natural resource, the key is in the wise use and management of the plants.
The non-native, invasive cattails, on the other hand, can choke out a body of water and cause a significant deterioration of fish and wildlife habitat. Landowners who want cattails should seek the advice and assistance of natural resource managers in recognizing the non-native species and controlling them.
Exercise some caution and diligent management practices, and your stand of cattails will be far more a classic country resource than a farm-pond choking eyesore.
John Marshall lives in Benton, Arkansas, and is an instructor of environmental science, biology and botany at Pulaski Technical College.