Yellow-rumped warbler with a bee in its beak sitting on a cattail in B.C. Canada

Cattail

Typha spp.
  • Division: Tracheophyta
  • Class: Liliopsida (monocotyledons)
  • Order: Poales
  • Family: Typhaceae
  • Genus: Typha

 

OVERVIEW

It would be hard to find a wetland plant as iconic as the cattail, with its brown, "hot-dog-on-a-stick" flower spikes. Cattails offer more than a scenic backdrop; they create an important wildlife habitat, providing food for small mammals and cover for water birds. Redwing blackbirds, ducks, and geese make nests in dense stands of cattails. These plants help prevent erosion, and they are important in keeping waterways clean and healthy, by filtering out nutrients and contaminants.

CHARACTERISTICS

Deep green, long, narrow, strap-like leaves emerge from the base of the stem and grow upward, but these grass-like plants get their name from their tall, brown flower spikes. Take a close look, and you'll see that a flower spike actually bears separate male and female flowers. The conspicuous brown part is made up of female flowers, and it is topped by a thinner, yellow spire of male flowers. Male flowers bloom first, producing pollen that will fertilize female flowers. In the fall, female flowers explode into white, fuzzy seed-heads.

USES

You may have seen fresh or dried flower arrangements adorned with dried cattails. If you want to try this yourself, be sure to paint the spikes with varnish or clear spray, or you'll eventually be cleaning up a "snow storm" of fluff when the seeds dry! Long cattail leaves can be used to weave mats and chair bottoms, and the starchy rhizomes can be eaten or used to make a flour.

Dwarf cattails alongside water

Dwarf Cattail

Typha minima

Native to Europe and Asia, this species grows to just 18 inches (46 centimeters) tall, making it the smallest of the cattails. It blooms in summer.

Narrowleaf cattail

Narrowleaf Cattail

Typha angustifolia

In this species, male and female flowers are separated by a sterile, naked section of the flower spike. It is native to North America and Asia.

Common cattail

Broadleaf Cattail (Common cattail)

Typha latifolia

Flowering stems can be as tall as 10 feet (3 meters). In this species, male and female sections of the flower spike are continuous.

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AQUATIC

Cattails will grow in shallow water, around the edges of deep water, or in wet, marshy soil.

SOFT

Some birds use cattail seed fluff to line their nests.

COMMON

You'll find cattails in marshes and around pond and lake edges in most of the world. Australia, New Zealand, and much of South America are the exceptions.

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