Island Science

Catails: Marsh Corn Dogs

by Dr. Sarah D. Oktay

Managing Director UMass Boston Nantucket Field Station

I have always loved cattails, and we have quite a few of them here at the Field Station.  When a student showed me an especially beautiful picture of one I decided there’s no better time than the present to write about such a versatile and fascinating plant.  In our junior ranger classes, we emphasize the medicinal and practical uses of plants and the cattail is one of the best examples of a plant that serves both nature and man.  The first written reference to cattails is found in the 15th century when the plant was described as having a spike-shaped head like that of a mace (giving it its original British name of “reed mace”) or a beetle (a type of pestle, hence the name “marsh pestle” for cattails).  Cattails have been a food source for thousands of years and may be one of the most utilitarian plants on the planet.

Photo by Len Germinara

Cattails are tall wetland plants with a unique flowering spike, and flat blade-like leaves.  They are one of the most common plants in large marshes and on the edge of ponds.  Two species are most common in the U.S., the larger broad leaved or “common” cattail (Typha latifolia) and narrow leaf cattail or lesser bulrush (Typha angustifolia).  {Note, although often called bulrushes, cattails are not true bulrushes which are usually sedges]. “Typha” comes from the Greek “typhos” meaning marshes; and “latifolia” is Latin for wide, broad leaves while “angustifolia” means, you guessed it “narrow leaf.” We have both types here at the Field Station according to our Discover Life plant variety catalog. Across the island, the T. latifolia is the prevalent species. The broad-leaved species has pale green leaves nearly one inch wide and it grows up to ten feet tall.  The narrow-leafed species plant is smaller and somewhat more salt tolerant.  Its leaves are thinner, deeper green and typically extend beyond the spike.  Also the male and female portion of the flower structure is separated by an inch or so of bare stem. T. latifolia hybridizes with T. angustifolia, to form Typha × glauca also known as white cattail.

Cattails get their name from their brown cylindrical flower spikes which can be more than one foot long.  Their rhizomes are extensive and “fleshy,” their stems can grow to be 9-10 feet tall.  The leaf blades are strap-like, extremely stiff, rounded on the back, spiraling in top half, and sheathed together at base to appear “flattened.”  Typha leaves are alternate and mostly basal to a simple, jointless stem that eventually bears the flowering spikes.  Their inflorescence is spike-like and very densely packed with tiny flowers; there is an almost biblical separation of genders with the male flowers in the top cluster, and female flowers in the bottom cluster.

Cattails have two methods of reproduction, both sexually and asexually, which they deploy depending on the situation.  Vegetative reproduction occurs through an extensive rhizome system and is responsible for the maintenance and expansion of existing stands.  Sexual reproduction via seed dispersal and seedling establishment is responsible for invasion of new areas. Early in the year, the top of the head has a slender tail of lighter colored staminate (male) flowers, the lower dark brown area being tightly packed pistillate (female) flowers.  Biological speaking, this arrangement is effective because the male part withers away when its job is done, whereas the female part must remain connected to the rest of the plant until the seeds have matured and dispersed.  Once fertilized, the female flowers transform into the familiar brown “cigars” also called candlewicks, punks, ducktails, and marsh beetles consisting of thousands of tiny developing seeds.  They whiten over the winter after the leaves die, and the cycle repeats.  Seed can also overwinter when needed to germinate the following year.  The flowers are very prolific, one stalk will produce an estimated 220,000 seeds.  The fruit of a cattail is a tufted nutlet that is less than 2 mm long.

Even with this number of seeds, cattails often depend on their growth by sending up clones from the creeping rhizomes.  It has been recorded that a cattail marsh can travel up to 17 feet in a year with prime conditions through the cloning process.  In fact, cattails at the edge of pond can grow faster than fertilized corn in a field.  Colonization can happen quickly, as one new seed produces a plant, that new shoot in its first year will send out a rhizomes for ten feet in all directions and can produce 100 clones in that first growing season.  Cattails prefer shallow, flooded conditions and easily get established along a pond shoreline or in waters one to 1.5 feet or less in depth.  When unimpeded, the cattail beds will expand and can extend their hefty rhizomes well out into pond surface, actually floating above much deeper waters.  Cattails need to have “wet feet” during most of the growing season and finding a cattail is a sure sign of finding water.

The dense foliage and debris from old growth makes it very difficult for competing plant species to grow.  Broadleaf cattail seeds are capable of germinating immediately after shedding under favorable conditions, but require moist or wet substrates, warm temperatures, low oxygen concentrations, and long day-short night exposures for germination to occur.  Light, temperature, and oxygen requirements for germination are best met in shallow water or on moist mudflats in vegetation-free areas.  Within established broadleaf cattail stands, seedlings are practically nonexistent. This is because existing vegetative cover greatly reduces light and temperature for germination, and because cattail leaves and stems may produce allelopathic inhibitors.

Cattails exhibit a typical wetland plant trait called “aerenchyma” (sounds painful doesn’t it?) which simply means it has many spaces or air channels in the leaves, stems and roots.  The channels of air-filled cavities provide a low-resistance internal pathway for the exchange of gases such as oxygen and ethylene between the plant above the water and the submerged tissues. Aerenchyma is widespread in aquatic and wetland plants which must grow in hypoxic (low oxygen) soils.

Cattails provide habitat for a variety of birds including Northern Harriers (marsh hawks) which will nest inside large stands here at the Field Station (which when you think of it, provides an excellent protective moat from feral cats).  Rails, bitterns, ducks, red-winged blackbirds, and other birds nest in cattail marshes.  Mammals and insects use the reedy stalks as cover.  The sac spider Clubiona riparia folds over leaf tips and creates a “nest” for her eggs to be sheltered, in addition to her dead body, which will become the first meal for the hatchlings.  “Duke’s Handbook of Medicinal Plants of the Bible” by James A. Duke has the saddest description of this act (creating “both a cradle and a coffin”) and it also has an extensive description of the various way cattails have been used throughout history and the many creatures that use the plants.  Several moths and other insects bore through the stem, feed on the leaves, and snack on the flowering stalks.  The Dicymolomia julianalis moth’s larval state (otherwise known to most of us as a caterpillar) actually makes its shelter within the flower by weaving the fine hairs on the seeds together. It will live in the warm confines over the winter alone or with as many as fifty other caterpillars. Birds may take advantage of these shelters by eating the caterpillars as a winter protein source.  Sometimes it doesn’t make sense to hang with a crowd.

Typha latifolia L. are distributed through most of North America (introduced and invasive in Hawaii) and Typha angustifolia L. is found across most of the U.S. minus a few southern states.  In some parts of the country, cattails are considered a nuisance species that crowds out other wetland plants not unlike the invasive Phragmites australis that plagues Nantucket.  Cattails are known as Cumbungi in Australia and T. latifolia is an introduced pest that threatens their two native species.

From “Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not-So-Wild) Places” by “Wildman” Steve Brill and Evelyn Dean we learn that a cattail is the closest you’ll find to one stop, year-round food shopping in the wilderness.  Although almost every part of the plant is edible, the description of harvesting and cooking the tender shoots early in the year sounds the most delectable.  Brill describes the shoots: “like a combination of tender zucchini and cucumbers, adding a refreshing texture and flavor to salads.”  He goes on to remind us that the shoots “provide beta carotene, niacin, riboflavin, thiamin, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamin C.”  The immature flower heads can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob in the early spring, the pollen when shaken off the flowers makes a good protein based flour additive, in late summer the horn shaped sprouts at the top of the root stalks can be eaten raw or cooked and the rhizomes provide starch.  Starch grains have been found on grinding stones widely across Europe from 30,000 BC suggesting that Typha plants were a widely used Upper Paleolithic food.

Native Americans and colonists both capitalized on the use of the brown flower heads to make long lasting “punks,” which produce a slowly-burning flame, with a smoke that drives insects away.  The fluffy, white seeds are often used for stuffing blankets, pillows, and toys and inside moccasins and around cradles for additional warmth.  Native Americans, including Wampanoags, used cattails for roofing material and mats.  The excellent website “NativeTech: Native American Technology and Art” presents a variety of weaving techniques and applications for cattails and similar reeds and rushes.  The Menomini and Meskwaki peoples used the root as a caulk to seal leaks in their boats.  In Russia, the root is commonly transformed into alcohol.  During World War II it was common for children to gather cattail fluff to aid the war effort as a stuffing for life jackets and flight suits.

Articles by Date from 2012