Everyone knows what a cattail is; it’s that brown lumpy thing that appears in the swamps and roadside ditches this time of year. While studying cattails (sometimes written as ‘cat-tails’), I discovered that they are an interesting and sneaky plant.
There are about 11- 18 species of cattails worldwide in the genus Typha. Here in Maine we have two species; the Common cattail T. latifolia, and the Narrow-leaf cattail T. angustifolia. The Common cattail is reported in every state in the US and every province in Canada, except Labrador. It is found in wet habitat in North and South America, Eurasia and Africa. The Common cattail has been introduced purposely to Australia and New Zealand, and the result there has generated both praises and curses. It has also been introduced to Hawaii, where it is considered a noxious weed. Here in Maine, according to the USDA maps, the Common cattail is not reported in Piscataquis or Kennebec counties, which seems strange, and I attribute that to oversight. The Narrow leaved cattail is less widespread, and may be introduced from Europe, and, according to the USDA maps and other references, appears along our southern coastal counties as far as Hancock county but also in Aroostook county. Both types of cattails look similar from a distance, but there are some subtle but noticeable differences up close. The Common (or Broad-leaved) cattail has leaves that may be a little over 1 inch wide, while the leaves of the Narrow- leaved cattail are at ½ inch maximum. The fruiting stalk on both types of cattails is divided into the lower part (which is the female flowers, and this turns into the ‘cat’) and the upper part, which is the male pollen or staminate. On the Common cattail these two sections touch, but on the Narrow-leaved cattail there is a gap between these two sections of ½ to 5 inches. Both types of ‘cat’ are 6 inches or less in length.
Now comes the sneaky part of the cattail. When no one is looking, these two plants can hybridize, and the result of this escapade is Typha x glauca. Now the hybrid cattail is supposedly sterile, but is a very aggressive colonizer, and may eliminate the one or both of its parents. It may exhibit either narrow or wide leaves but the ‘cat’ may be up to 12 inches long. Typha x glauca has either or both of its parents attributes in regards to its leaf width, and is reported in Penobscot, Knox, Lincoln, Kennebec and Cumberland counties, but not in the Quoddy region. I did see a cattail patch with a cats over 9 inches long in Machiasport.
All parts of the cattail are edible at some times of the year. In the spring the young shoots are cooked like asparagus; in mid to late June the emerging male parts of the flowers are very palatable cooked in salt water with a little pad of butter, and in the fall through spring the roots can be harvested. One study indicated that flour made from the roots has a percentage of protein similar to flour made from corn or rice, but less fat. The Native Americans apparently utilized cattails, but there is no name for cattail in my Passamaquoddy reference book. Cattails have been used for making small baskets, and the fuzz from the seeds has been used in an emergency for insulation in boots. It has also been used for packing pillows, but care must be used because allergic reactions have been reported. Cattails have been used for clearing water of pollutants like heavy metals and arsenic, and in sewage lagoons. The biomass production of cattails is supposedly superior to willow or switchgrass, but the growing areas are dissimilar, and I have heard of no experimentation along those lines. Cattails are generally very beneficial to wildlife, like birds, muskrats, moose, and deer, etc. in regards to food and protection.
Cattails can be nuisance to owners who want a more open pond and they can clog up waterways and drainages, and most literature about cattails is how to eliminate them. I have made several ponds on our property, and the biggest, although it has a fine crop of arrowroot, has no cattails. The pond just off Leighton Point road that attracts the critters for my spring amphibian walk had a sharp reduction in cattails recently, and I can’t ascertain why. In my many conversations with green frogs, I have never heard one complain about too many cattails. I guess I’ll abide by their wishes and let my cattails be.