Typha latifolia, T. angustifolia
Name and Number
Minnesota harbors two species of cattails, plus a hybrid. The scientific "first name," or genus, for cattail is Typha, from the Greek typhe, meaning cattail. For narrow-leaved cattail, the species name is angustifolia (angust means narrow, and folia is Latin for leaf). Our broad-leaved species is latifolia (lati is Latin for broad). The hybrid of these two species is called Typha x glauca (glauca is Latin for bluish green).
Range and Habitat
Broad-leaved cattail grows in shallow wetlands statewide, while narrow-leaved cattail occurs in all but the northeast. While both species grow in marshes and ditches along shorelines, narrow-leaved tends to occur in deeper, more alkaline water.
Cattails have a two-part spike of minute, densely packed flowers. The male portion at the top appears yellow when full of pollen in early summer. Male flowers drop off after wind disperses the pollen. The lower, female part of the spike appears green during summer and has thousands of tiny flowers. (Someone once counted 148,000.)
The two species can be told apart by the distance between the male part of the spike and the female (in broad-leaved cattail, the parts are usually contiguous; in narrow-leaved, they are separated by an inch or more) and by the width of the leaves (in narrow-leaved cattail, they are up to 1/2-inch wide; in broad-leaved, they are 1/2 to 1 inch wide). The hybrid has traits that are intermediate between narrow-leaved and broad-leaved cattails, although its spike and leaves may be longer.
The long, straplike leaves and the stalk holding the flower spike emerge in spring from sprouts formed in fall on a thick underground stem called a rhizome. By late summer the pollinated female flowers have developed into tiny brown nutlets with many hairs to ensure dispersal by wind. Anyone who has tried to keep cattails in the house without spraying the spikes with hair spray knows this is an effective dispersal mechanism.
From fall through spring, cattail rhizomes are full of starch and, together with cattail shoots, form much of a muskrats diet. Humans who enjoy wild edibles also eat some parts of cattails.
Extensive colonies can form relatively quickly. A summers growth may lead to a rhizome system 10 feet in diameter with 100 shoots. Many a duck hunter hidden in a natural blind of 7-foot-tall leaves has been grateful for this productivity.
Janet Boe, DNR plant ecologist