Managing Cattails in Wetland Areas

A look at the appearance of cattails, where they grow, what uses they have, and how to manage the aquatic plant on your farm pond or wetland area.

| November/December 2013

  • 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.
    Photo By Fotolia/Africa Studio
  • A lake overgrown with cattails in spring in Quakertown, Pennsylvania.
    Photo By Aard Lumens
  • A duck flaps its wings on a body of water surrounded by cattails.
    Photo By Photawa

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.

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