Cattail, Common - (Typha latifolia)


Common Name: Cattail, Common

Scientific Name: Typha latifolia

Family: Cattail (Typhaceae)
Other Common Names: Broad-leaved Cattail, Reedmace, Candlewick

Flower Color: Green and then brown

Habitat: In or near water

General Bloom Dates: May-July

General Characteristics:
The very recognizable and familiar cattail flowers begin as green spikes (female parts) with loose, dangling hairs containing pollen (male parts) above that. Once fertilized, the female parts turn dark brown and the male parts fall away, leaving a stiff, pointed spike. The leaves are very tall and narrow (grass-like). A tall marsh plant, that grows in dense groups. Early in the year the top of the head has a slender tail of lighter colored staminate flowers, the lower dark brown area being tightly packed pistillate flowers. In fact the flowers are very prolific, one stalk will produce an estimated 220,000 seeds. Even with this number of seeds, cattails colonize by sending up clones from the creeping rhizomes. It has been recorded that a cattail marsh can travel up to 17 feet in a year with prime conditions through the cloning process. Colonization can happen quickly, as one new seed produces a plant, that new shoot in it's first year will send out a rhizomes for ten feet in all directions and can produce 100 clones in that first growing season. Cattails can reach heights 3-9 feet.


Plant Lore:
There is reference to the cattail as far back as the 15th century in describing the plant as having a spike shaped head like that of a mace (medieval weapon) or a beetle (type of pestle, hence the name Marsh Pestle). Being found worldwide the cattail's, many uses seem never ending. The stems and leaves have many uses which include; burial shrouds and sandals in Peru, rafts were fashioned out of the stalk, and chair seats were woven from the leaves. The Ojibwa children would make duck decoys from the stalks and dolls from the leaves. The Ojibwa, among other cultures, also wove mats to cover the floor and walls of their temporary shelters out of cattail leaves. In Colonial America, the cattail leaves would be twisted into a hoop that would be used by the cooper (barrel maker) to hold the barrels together in the absence of steel hoops. Immigrating Swedes were said to use the fluff from the cattail as stuffing for their mattresses, pillows and quilts. The woolly brown heads were also used as filling for baseballs and life-jackets. In Russia, the root is commonly transformed into alcohol. The Cattail is very important ecologically for many reasons. They are often the dominant plant in wetlands and utilized as shelter and as a food source, either directly or indirectly. Just a sample of the enormous number of ways Cattail is utilized are as follows. Aquatic insects use the cattail's extensive rhizome and root system (up to 15 feet in diameter) as shelter to hide within as predators and prey. Beavers, Geese, and Muskrats use the rhizomes as a food source. Above the waterline the dead leaves and the seed fluff are used by birds as nesting material, muskrats use the plants for their lodges, spiders utilize the stalks for shelters as well, in particular Clubiona riparia , insects like the Dicymolomia julianalis use the flowers and the stem. The Sac Spider Clubiona riparia folds over leaf tips and creates a "nest" for her eggs to be sheltered, in addition to her dead body, which will become the first meal for the hatchlings. The Dicymolomia julianalis caterpillar actually makes its shelter within the flower by weaving the fine hairs on the seeds together. It will live in the warm confines over the winter alone, or with as many as fifty other caterpillars. Birds may take advantage of these shelters by eating the caterpillars as a winter protein source, (Chickadees) or as a cache for food.


Modern Uses of this Plant:
One of the most versatile of all wild edible plants. Some part of the plant can be used in virtually every month of the year, making this plant the perfect survival plant. In late spring the young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked as we would asparagus, later the green immature spikes can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. In early summer the yellow pollen produced by the yellow male spike, can be collected, sifted and mixed with other flours creating a protein rich flour. Late summer the horn shaped sprouts at the top of the root stalks can be eaten raw or cooked. These sprouts may contain up to 30% starch and sugars. The starchy core at the base of the sprouts can be prepared like a potato. In the winter the root stocks fill with starch which can be retrieved and dried into a good quality white flour, or cooked like a potato. The food value of the cattail almost equal that of corn or rice as a staple in ones diet. Once the flower spikes have gone to seed they have been used as insulation, padding, and wound dressing (if you pull a tuft of seeds from the spike you will notice how compressible, expandable, and soft the hairs are). The leaves, which are unique themselves when observed in cross section have many non-food uses by people. If you were too cut a leaf and look down the leaf you would notice a network of fibers going every which way, which provide support for the leaves, and making it strong for human use as well. Cattail also rank up there with peanuts for their potential commercial uses. Flour and cornstarch can be derived from the root-stalk, ethyl alcohol can be produced from the fermented flours, burlap and caulking can be made from the rhizome fibers, adhesives can be made from the stem, insulation can be gathered from the downy spikes. In fact during World War II it was common for children to gather cattail fluff to aid the war effort as a stuffing for life jackets and flight suits. Oil can also be derived from the seeds, rayon from the cattail pulp and the processed wastes from production of these various products can be used as chicken feed. The possibilities are simply endless.