Species Profile **

Close Up on the Cattail

by Nadine Meyer

September 2010


Species Profile Archive

cattail

 

Cattail

Cattail:

Typha angustifolia and Typha latifolia: Typha - Greek from typhe meaning cattail; angustifolia & latifolia - Latin, angusti means narrow, lati means broad, folia means leaves.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

"Cattails sway slightly in the breeze. The velvety brown spike of the cattail and the song of a red-wing blackbird supply the quintessential elements of a marsh." ~ Through the Looking Glass... A Field Guide to Aquatic Plants

 

 

 

 

 

Identification

cattail flower

 

Cattail Flower

Narrow-leaved Cattail (Typha angustifolia): 

  • Dark green, sword-like leaves 1/4 to 1/2 inch wide
  • Female flowers form a spike 4 to 8 inches long and 1/2 to 1 inch wide that turns brown and fuzzy in the fall and looks like a hotdog on a stick
  • Male flowers form a spike generally 1 inch above the female flowers and will drop off the stem once pollen is released

Broad-leaved Cattail (Typha latifolia): 

  • Pale green, sword-like leaves 1/2 to 3/4 inch wide
  • Female flowers form a spike 4 to 6 inches long and 1 to 2 inches wide that turns brown and fuzzy in the fall and looks like a sausage on a stick
  • Male flowers form a spike directly above the female flowers with very little or no space between the female and male spikes and will drop off the stem once pollen is released

These two species of cattails can hybridize and show a blend of features. Generally the hybrids have longer flower stalks and taller leaves than their parent plants.

Similar-looking plants before flowering: blue flag irisThis link leads to an external site. (Iris versicolor) and sweetflagThis link leads to an external site. (Acorus calmus)

Habitat

Narrow-leaved Cattail (Typha angustifolia): 

  • Grows to 3 feet or taller along shorelines of marshes, lakeshores, river backwaters, and road ditches
  • Grows in water 1 to 4 feet deep
  • Can establish growth in disturbed areas and tolerates brackish waterThis link leads to an external site.

Broad-leaved Cattail (Typha latifolia): 

  • Grows to 3 feet or taller along shorelines of marshes, lakeshores, river backwaters, and road ditches
  • Grows in moist soil and in water up to 3 feet deep
  • Does not tolerate brackish waterThis link leads to an external site.

Reproduction

cattail rhizome

 

Cattail Rhizome

Cattails grow from rhizomesThis link leads to an external site. and seeds. Rhizomes produce shoots in the fall that begin to sprout in the spring once sunlight can reach the soil. Seeds will germinate on exposed mudflats. One seed can create a large network of rhizomes with hundreds of shoots in a single growing season.

The flower spikes are formed by mid-summer. The male spike starts out green and turns yellow when the flowers begin releasing pollen. Cattail pollen is spread by the wind and after the pollen is released, the male flowers drop off the stalk. The female flower spike is covered in a sheath and is green until the sheath drops off once the flowers are mature. Then the female spike will turn brown.

The individual female flowers that make up the spike will form nutlets or remain sterile after fertilization. Each nutlet has a fluff of fine hairs that allows it to be carried by the wind. The brown flower spikes will begin to open and release the nutlets in the fall, some nutlets will stay attached to the flower stalk until the following spring.

Predators

Cattail shoots and rhizomes are a primary food source for muskrats and are also eaten by geese and humans. Cattail moth caterpillars eat the seeds of the female flower spikes and create a network of silky threads to hold the brown fluff together forming an insulated shelter for the winter.

Natural Connections

One way to demonstrate to students how environmental stressors affect aquatic plants in their local stream or river is to use Lesson 3:2 - Aquatic Plant Power. This interactive game helps students to realize how stressors can change the balance and health of an aquatic ecosystem.

If you or your students are not familiar with the amazing diversity of organisms in your local water bodies, use Lesson 1:4 - Water Habitat Site Study to explore who is living in the water near you.

Fun Facts

  • Cattails are one of the most versatile wild edible plants available. There is some part of the plant available for harvest as food during every season of the year. Click here This link leads to an external site. to learn more about harvesting & preparing cattails for food. Here are some recipes This link leads to an external site. to use when preparing cattails.
  • Cattail pollen is sometimes used in fireworks.
  • You can use the fluffy seeds as fire-starters.