Cattails (The kind I let my son pull)

I’m just going to go ahead and pretend I’ve been diligently posting a weekly “Species of the week” through December and January. The winter months definitely limit the number of species readily available for pictures, as well as my desire to pull off my gloves to take pictures with my phone.

This week’s species will be something familiar (hopefully to everyone). Today’s species is the:

Common Cattail (Typha latifolia.)  (a.k.a. Bulrush)


Cattails were a familiar sight for me growing up, as they were commonly used in dried flower arrangements. Plus, of course, they’re everywhere. If you’re near a body of water, it would be difficult to avoid them. Clearly, this picture only shows the remaining seed heads covered in ice, and none of the leaves that have died off by now.

Identification and information:

These native and extremely common perennials can be found all across North American. They grow up to 2.5m in shallow marshy water and are easily identified by their distinctive long brown seed heads (known as a spadix). These are actually densely packed flowers that bloom in summer. Cattails have tall flat leaves with parallel veins.

Cattails reproduce by rhizomes as well as by seeds, which are dispersed to new locations when the seed head disintegrates in the late fall. They are extremely competitive and can be a problem for diversity, as they aggressively create monocultures in open water. They are sometimes a problem in areas where drainage in needed as they can block water flow.

They serve as important sources of food and shelter for many wetland species. One species I always see and associate with cattails is the red-winged blackbird. I will try to get a picture and profile that species in the summer.

Can we eat them?

Yes, once again, the cattail is another surprisingly entirely edible species.  There are a variety of recipes on the following site including a stir fry, a casserole and a way to eat them like corn on the cob!

They were historically used as a food source in many different ways. For example, the rhizomes can be dried and pounded into flour.

Other interesting uses: Image

The stems and leaves of cattails have been used for many kinds of weaving, for both ornamental and practical purposes (such as shelters and boats). The autumn seed “fluff” has been used as a fire-starter and to stuff things like pillows, jackets and diapers. Medicinally, they have been used most commonly for wound dressing.  These are just a few of the many possible uses.

And….they’re kinda fun to play with.



Posted on January 27, 2014, in Species of the week, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Nice a weed covering the earth for protection even in the winter! H D Thoreau would be impressed!


  2. Thanks for a great post and links. Maybe the best part is the picture of the little guy in his puffy, warm gear, and knowing he’s growing into an appreciation of winter.


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