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Nature Notes: Cattails

Ed Robinson
December 10, 2022

Song writers endlessly spin songs about life and love, using language and music in many styles to tell their tales. When writers turn lyrical, they often draw upon the natural world in the form of animals or plants. Witness one example in 1968 when folk singer Gordon Lightfoot mused about “pussy willows, cattails, soft winds and roses.” If you prefer a different style, the midwestern band Big Thief performs a song named “Cattails,” a story about “going back home to the Great Lakes where the cattail sways with the lonesome loon.”

So why focus on a plant that most people barely notice? Read on and you will find a few reasons to pay more attention to those lovely cattails waving on a nearby shore.

There are roughly 30 species of plants in the cattail family, grouped in the genus Typha, from the ancient Greek word for “marsh.” The name is descriptive since cattails are almost always found in or near water, mostly freshwater but they can tolerate brackish water. Depending upon your upbringing, you might also refer to them as reeds, bulrushes, water torch or even cat o’ nine tails. In North America scientists list three species, first the broadleaf or common cattail and second, the narrowleaf cattail, which is more widely found in Europe. The third is a hybrid cattail, one that is supposedly sterile but with the ability to aggressively gain new territory and that has resulted in a significant expansion of the plants across the land in the last century.

Unlike plants that require male and female versions for reproduction, cattails are labelled as monoecious – plants that have both male and female parts so that they can reproduce on their own. The male or staminate flowers are found on the top of the plant, on the portion looking like a sharp spike. Hundreds of female flowers form in the shape of a foot long sausage on the stem just below the spike where they receive the pollen as the male flowers dry up. A mass of tiny seeds is formed as a result of this reproductive process, each attached to a fine hair that assists in catching the wind so the seeds can be dispersed far and wide. If the seeds land in hostile territory they are believed to survive for as long as 100 years until conditions become favorable.

Cattails (photo by High Mountain, Shutterstock)

Cattails are pioneer plants, those that quickly take root in newly exposed damp, soft earth. The seeds need sunlight for germination and can handle a wide range of temperatures, allowing them to establish a colony ahead of competing plants. Fluctuating water levels, such as in flood plains, work to the advantage of cattails since some species can tolerate water depths up to four feet. Once the plants are established their roots are rhizomatous, meaning they develop laterally in the soil while pushing out shoots for new growth and expansion. These characteristics allow cattails to win the competition for space and nutrients against other native species so that they may end up dominating a wetland with a dense canopy. Over time, as vegetative matter and sediments accumulate around the stand of cattails, a wetland may shrink and gradually convert to a meadow environment.

There are many attributes that make this plant valuable for wildlife and humans alike. A stand of cattails can host a wide range of creatures above and below the water, from tiny one-celled microbes to the egg masses of amphibians. Juvenile fish and turtles find shelter among the plants to avoid larger predators. Dragonflies make use of the stalks for hunting prey species or for laying their eggs. Birds like the red-winged blackbird, mallard and Canada goose use cattails for perching and nest sites, while many songbirds use cattail fluff to line their nests. Muskrats and beavers actively feed upon cattail stalks and roots. Larger creatures like white-tailed deer, raccoons and wild turkeys use cattail stands for security cover.

Indigenous people of our region learned to make good use of the cattail plant. Many parts of the plant are edible, from the starchy roots to the moist stalks at the bottom of each leaf. Pollen can be collected as a tasty, nutritious substitute for or addition to flour. Green flower heads can be peeled and boiled in late summer and are said to taste like corn on the cob. The gel from the interior of a leaf was used as a natural antiseptic. Dried leaves were used for weaving baskets, chair seats, and rafts. The fluff from a dried head has been used for natural diapers, lining of pillows and moccasins, and for early life vests.

Stems and leaves are quite fibrous and are still used by hobbyists to make decorative paper. Those fibers can also be treated with sodium hydroxide so they are suitable for making textiles. Scientists are also experimenting with harvesting cattails to make bio-ethanol. We know that wetlands serve a vital purpose in fighting erosion, capturing run off water, and filtering that water before it enters the aquifer or streams. Cattails sequester pollutants such as lead and arsenic, helping to preserve clean water.

Of course, too much of a good thing can become a problem. As cattails have spread in the last 100 years, they have dramatically changed the nature of historic marshes and wetlands used by migrating waterfowl. Pond owners may engage in ongoing battles to prevent cattails from taking over shallow waters. Techniques for controlling the plant range from mowing and cutting, to the use of excavators to remove plants and root systems, or the use of herbicides. In extreme cases, wetlands and ponds may be drained before winter so that the root systems are killed by cold weather. When the pond by our cabin was dug the contractor advised making the banks steep so that cattails would not be able to reach more than three or four feet from the shoreline. It worked well and today we have a healthy stand of the reeds contributing to a vibrant pond ecosystem.

There is an old saying that a stand of cattails can provide four of the five things we need for survival: water, food, shelter, and fuel. The only thing missing is companionship. In that case you might choose to mingle among the bullrushes at the Cattails Golf Club in South Lyon, Michigan or at least nine other courses around the country named after this unique plant. While I love chasing the little white ball, I would rather enjoy my cattails next spring when the red-winged blackbirds return to our local marshes. It is easier on the nerves and good for the soul…

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.