Growing cattails from seed

Cattails For The Pond – Tips On How To Control Cattails

Pass by any lake, pond, river or marsh that has been left to Mother Nature’s attention and you’ll find cattails (Typha latifolia). Ask anyone responsible for maintaining these same areas as part of an artificial landscape (like a garden) and opinions on those cattail plants or cattail control will be either “Aren’t they wonderful!” or “#@*&! weeds!” Unfortunately, both opinions have valid reasoning.

When it comes to landscaping a natural pond (any natural body of water within your landscape), be careful. Cattails for the pond can be both a headache and a delight, but learning how to control cattails can tip the scales dramatically in their favor.

The Good Side of Cattail Plants

From a naturalist’s point of view, cattail plants are a wonder of nature where every part of the plant can be used to benefit a variety of species, including humans. These perennials are tall sturdy plants that can grow to almost 10 feet tall (2 meters). They have heavy, rhizomatous roots; long, flat leaves and long, cylindrical brown flower spikes that can add height and texture to the aquatic garden and will grow anywhere that supplies a constant source of water.

Underwater, they provide a safe haven for tiny fish and attract many of the smaller aquatic creatures that birds and other wildlife feed on. They create a shelter from winter cold and wind for mammals and birds and a source of nesting material with their leaves and seeds. If you want to attract a wide variety of wildlife into your landscape, consider cattails for the pond.

Humans have always benefited from the lowly cattail. Plants have been used for rush bottom furniture, baskets and mats. The downy seeds have been used to stuff pillows and mattresses and during World War II were used to stuff life jackets.

Native Americans were experts in using every part of the plant, not only for stuffing or the waterproof qualities of the leaf, but as a reliable food source. All parts of the cattail plant, from the roots to the flower heads are edible. The rootstock can be boiled or roasted, or dried and ground into a powdery flour. The center of the stalks is thick and starchy and the flower heads can be roasted for a nutty tasting treat.

Cattail plants have industrial uses as well. Plant parts can be distilled into ethyl alcohol for antifreeze or an inexpensive solvent and the stems produce a sizing for shaving cream. What a versatile plant! And yet…

Tips on How to Control Cattails

Cattails for the pond come with a set of problems you may not want to deal with. Learning how to control cattails is a must, as these hardy plants can take over a pond in a matter of a few years. The reason for this lies in the reproductive capabilities of the cattail. Plants produce those wonderful, velvety ‘tails’. These are the flower heads and each head produces around 300,000 seeds, each equipped with its own little parachute to be borne on the wind. On a calm day, these little fluffs will fall straight to the ground around the parent plant and germinate quickly.

Plucking those seed heads before they ripen won’t help, however. Those rhizomatous roots produce their own sets of offspring, eventually forming dense mats. Cattail control, therefore, is essential to the health and well-being of your pond and landscape. The good news is there are several methods available to the home gardener for how to control cattails, so hopefully one of them will appeal to you.

The first method of cattail control involves the application of herbicides. There are two chemicals, diquat and glyphosate, that are both effective and approved for aquatic use. Diquat is a contact herbicide. It will kill the green part of the plant, but not the root. It’s easy to use, but you’ll have to use it every year. Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide and will kill the root, although it may take several weeks to do the job. Your gardening or pond supply source should be able to help you find the brand names that contain these chemicals.

The next methods of how two control cattails are considered mechanical. Choice one is to dig them up! This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Those cattail plants have massive root systems. For larger areas of overgrowth, a back-hoe may be needed. Another alternative is the drowning method, which can only be used if the plants’ bases are completely submerged underwater. All you have to do is cut the plants off two or three inches below the water surface. This deprives the plant of the air it needs and it will drown.

Growing Cattails in a Pot

Growing cattails in a pot is another method to consider when deciding on how to control your cattails. This is particularly suitable for the small natural pond or an artificial (plastic or rubber-lined) one. Growing cattails in pots eliminates root spread, keeping your plants in a confined space. Clay pots are ideal for this. They have the weight to keep them upright when submerged and can be partially buried in a boggy area. Their downside is their susceptibility to cracking under freezing conditions. Growing cattails in pots will not, however, totally eliminate propagation. Don’t forget those fluffy little seeds! You’ll still need to be vigilant in your cattail control.

Life Cycle of a Cattail

cattails image by Pix by Marti from Fotolia.com

Cattails are a perennial and a common marsh plant. They’re easily recognizable by their long, thin leaves and distinctive cattail tops, which are brown fuzzy cylinders six to 12 inches in length. The cattail goes through four distinct stages in its life cycle.

Rhizomes

Throughout the winter and into early spring, cattails exist mostly as rhizomes, which are tuber-like root parts that live underground. Cattails reproduce by growing and spreading rhizomes through the summer. If you want to plant or re-plant cattails, dig rhizomes in early spring, before they have begun to put out new shoots.

Young Shoots

In early to mid-spring, cattails begin to grow new leaves. The long, flat leaves resemble daffodil or iris leaves, and may be mistaken for them in the early stages of growth. Cattail leaves soon become distinctive, however, by their length, growing anywhere from three to nine feet long.

Although rhizomes can still be transplanted once young shoots have appeared, they stand a better chance of survival in their new home if transplanted before the young shoots appear.

Flowers

Cattails are hermaphroditic, meaning that the male and female plant parts grow on the same plant. On a cattail, they also grow on the same stalk. During summer flowering season, a cattail puts out a female flower part, which is a brown fuzzy cylinder about six to 12 inches long and about an inch in diameter.

Immediately above the fuzzy cattail, the plant grows a three- to six-inch stalk covered in tiny brown flowerets. This is the male part of the plant. During the reproductive season in mid-summer, the male parts shed large amounts of golden pollen. Eventually, the flowerets dry up and fall off. A cattail plant has lost most of the tiny flowerets by mid- to late summer.

Seeds

As the male flowerets die off, the female part of the cattail begins to produce seeds, each of which is connected to a bit of white fluff to allow it to travel more easily on the wind. Cattails produce seeds in late summer and early fall. A single cattail plant may produce as many as 250,000 seeds in a season. The seeds are popular food for a number of migrating marsh birds, including blackbirds.

Although it is possible to start cattail plants from seed, it is considerably easier to start them from rhizomes. If planting seeds, plant in early spring, after the ground has thawed.

Overwintering

In late fall and winter, the cattail’s leaves and flowers die off, although they frequently remain standing in swamps and marshy areas. The cattail hibernates in its rhizome throughout the winter. The best time to dig rhizomes is after the plant has died off and before the ground freezes in winter, or after it thaws in early spring. Rhizomes dug in winter can be stored until spring. Place rhizomes in a paper bag and store in a moderately cool, stable temperature such as in a basement or pantry.

Related Content

If you live anywhere in the United States near marshlands or ponds, the cattail is a summertime staple. Known by science as the Broadleaf Cattail (Typha latifolia), these species of edible plant have offered generations of children fun and exciting ways to kick up their allergies. Colloquially referred to as “corn dog grass,” cattails can be popped open like cans of biscuits, releasing fluffy seed heads into the world like so much sneezing fairy dust. Case in point: the below video, which we found at BoingBoing. Watch in amazement as tiny cattails are cracked open to reveal their TARDIS-like properties. It’s the rural equivalent of watching an ASMR video or one of those loops of folks cutting up kinetic sand

Case in point: the below video, which we found at BoingBoing. Watch in amazement as tiny cattails are cracked open to reveal their TARDIS-like properties. It’s the rural equivalent of watching an ASMR video or one of those loops of folks cutting up kinetic sand.

As the cattail video proves, each stalk contains an abundance of seeds. Studies have shown these hardy seeds can germinate up to 60 months after burrowing into the ground, making them prime invasive species candidates. The most effective deterrent to cattails overtaking an area is to literally kill it with fire. But that’s not to say this flora is simply taking up space; American Indians were utilizing every part of the cattail for hundreds of years, with even a war or two breaking out over control of the land they grew on. Over in Europe, indigenous populations were harvesting cattails as early as 30,000 years ago.

Cattails can be eaten raw as young sprouts or the flowering stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. As a grain, they can also be ground down into flour. Cattails were also used as a glue paste to caulk watercraft or to make a salve for wounds. The copious fluff was utilized as wound dressing, bed stuffing, and insulation for both clothing and housing.

Cattails are hard to miss, yet often dismissed. Whether in solitary clumps in a ditch or spread out in marshy fields, the burnt umber rockets hovering above dark-green blades add texture and familiarity to the landscape. Hearty and successful competitors, they can take over, and they hybridize easily. In the Bay Area, we have three species: broadleaf, narrowleaf, and southern. All were once considered native, but it appears that narrow-leaf is a very successful exotic that’s now widespread. Perhaps because cattails are so common, we don’t pay them much attention, but if our survival depended directly on the land, they would be a go-to plant. There’s a reason that Euell Gibbons called them “the supermarket of the swamp.”

In the fall, cattails send energy down to their shallow rhizomes, producing an excellent source of food starch. The ribbonlike leaves die, but the brown flower heads stand tall. They may look as dense as a corn dog, but give them a pinch and thousands of seeds explode into the air.

Come spring, tender shoots poking out of the leaf bed can be pulled out gently and eaten. Indeed, a recently published Chicago Sun-Times food article about the shoots included a recipe for cattail rice pilaf. Last spring I asked a chef to try a shoot as we canoed through Suisun Slough. He described it as having a “soapy finish,” and his choice of words was apt. Native Tech, an Internet resource for indigenous ethnotechnology, says the root can be used as toothpaste and the pollen as a hair conditioner.

In autumn, look for the soft fluff that helps seeds from the flower disperse on the wind. Photo (c) Dan Suzio, dansuzio.com.

There is scant direct evidence of how Bay Area tribes used the plant, though Barbara Bocek’s 1984 article “Ethnobotany of Costanoan Indians” says those tribes ate the roots, young shoots, and pollen. A book on Kashaya Pomo plant use also says they ate the young shoots.

Beyond Native Californian traditions, wild edible food books and websites often list many uses for cattails. In midspring, a stalk with a stacked flower head emerges. The male flower spike, on top, produces yellow pollen that can be used as flour for baking. On the bottom, the brown, fuzzy cat’s tail look-alike is the female flower spike, which develops seeds and a fluff that aids in its dispersal by wind and sometimes collects in marshes in the fall. The fluff is so soft that it has been used to line babies’ diapers. The leaves can be made into biodegradable packaging or woven into dolls and baskets.

With the proliferation of synthetics and other materials, we’ve stopped needing the plant, but wildlife hasn’t. Seed fluff provides nesting material for red-winged blackbirds and hummingbirds. Beavers and muskrats eat the rhizomes and use the leaves to line their dens and lodges. Bees collect the pollen, and snails use the blades as vertical highways.

People who study and work in wetlands haven’t lost sight of the plant’s importance. Bay Area wetland expert and native plant advocate Phyllis Faber uses cattails as an indicator of salinity. If cattails are growing, she knows that nearby water is relatively low in salt, no higher than 2 percent.

“They will be good at keeping pace with sea level rise,” says Lisamarie Windham-Myers, a wetland ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). “With their scaffolding root system, cattails accumulate land surface rapidly.”

About 15 years ago, USGS research scientists Robin Miller and Roger Fujii started a soil-building experiment on Twitchell Island in the Delta. In the process, they discovered that plots of cattails and tules sequestered about 15 metric tons of carbon annually per acre while a neighboring farm released 10 metric tons per acre during the same time frame. Until their state funding was frozen, researchers from USGS, UC Davis, and the California Department of Water Resources were working on an expanded 650-acre project to determine how to maximize carbon sequestration while building soil using cattails and other marsh plants on subsided land in the Delta, which is especially vulnerable to sea level rise.

It looks like cattails, survivors since the age of the dinosaurs, have the ability to ride out climate change, and they may help us adapt as well. And that’s not so easy to dismiss.

Foraging for wild foods without thorough knowledge of the plant and local conditions, and permission of the landowner, is not recommended and may be illegal.

Cattails a natural addition

Sun | Home & Garden

Maureen Gilmer, Do It Yourself Network — Oct 5th, 2002

Cattails are ideal candidates for fountains with untreated water. SHNS photo by Maureen Gilmer/DIY Network

Autumn’s light now falls on one of America’s favorite marsh plants. Known as cattails, they are our most widely recognized wetland species, identified by soft, brown cylinder-shaped seed stalks resembling a corn dog or cigar on a stick.

Standing tall above seas of golden foliage rippling in the winds, the cigars will explode into clouds of fluff that the wind will carry for miles. The seeds will travel until they land in a wet place that collapses the fibers and allows germination to begin.

Cattail seed fiber absorb-ency was recognized early on by Native American women as the ideal wadding for cra-dleboards. Native American infants were packed in this downy fiber like a burrito and bound with soft doeskin and laces. Because tribes always camped near waterways, there was always plenty of fresh diaper wadding. Wherever the women went, they discarded the used fibers and seeds. This helped to distribute cattail over an ever-growing range and shows how humans enhanced native plant distribution long before Europeans settled here.

All cattails are true marginals, which are nature’s most adaptable plant creations. They literally dwell on the margins of lakes, rivers, streams and ponds. Water levels in nature rise and fall with the seasons, and marginals must be able to survive both complete inundation during the wet season, and dry land when waters recede.

Their thin, flexible form is perfectly adapted to river flows. Cattails offer little resistance to flowing water, and an extensive rooting network prevents them from being torn from sandy banks. These plants provide valuable bank stabilization in the wild and are essential to wetland conservation.

Because they are easily recognized, cattails are a popular water garden plant. They are ideal to combine with other North American natives in a natural pool as a signature wetland species. The common cattail, Typha latifolia, can grow to about 8 feet in height and is found throughout America. The smaller Typha angustifolia, which is native to the same vast range, reaches just 4 feet. Newcomer Typha minima stands just 18 inches at maturity. Each belongs in a water garden of appropriate proportions.

Cattails are most dramatic when used alone. If combined with other tall marginals such as papyrus or rushes, their geometric seed heads may be lost in the confusion of vertical stalks.

Cattails also have a place in a more contemporary or classical fountain. The strong vertical element can be played against horizontal lines and walls for a more interesting dynamic. Cattails are particularly attractive when planted in water against a smooth stucco or plaster wall.

The cattail is perhaps the most useful of all plants. Stems, pollen and root are edible and nutritious. The easiest part to harvest is the soft white core that lies inside the developing plants during spring. Cut the plant about a foot above the roots or ground surface and peel away the layers of the long green outer leaves. The core is crisp and mild, and is a perfect addition to fresh salads.

Both Native Americans and the pioneers added cattail stems and roots to soups and stews as you would heart of palm or celery.

Cattails remain our most fascinating native plant for water and bog gardens. At home in a New England farm pond or in a postmodern fountain in Los Angeles, it is the chameleon of the aquatic world that has too long been relegated to the status of a wayside weed.

For information on the net: www. nativetech.org/cattail.

CattailOut Of Stock

Cattail is a ubiquitous wetland plant with an extraordinary number of food and non-food uses. For this reason, it has often been dubbed “Nature’s Supermarket”.

Edible Uses

Cattail is a native food with edible roots, shoots, immature flower heads, pollen, and seed! Wow!

Cattail roots are very productive, and can produce more edible starch (flour) than potatoes, yams, rice or taro. Roots are often dried and ground into flour, but can also be peeled and cooked as a root vegetable – although the taste is rather bland and fibrous. It contains 80% starch and 6-8% protein – a high energy food.

Cattail’s young shoots are a pleasant spring vegetable. They can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked like asparagus, with a taste similar to Cucumbers. Immature flower heads are picked green and eaten raw or cooked – a tasted reminiscent of sweet corn. Pollen can be shaken from the flower in quantity and provide a gluten-free supplement to flours for baked goods. Lastly, seeds are small but have a nutty flavor and are good raw or toasted.

Cattails were an extremely important part of Native American culture for food, medicine, and craft uses.

Ornamental Qualities

Green all year long, Cattail provides a lush and wild look to any wetland garden. Cattail flowers, with their burnt red-brown color, provide a unique visual display sitting atop their long green stalks. Their thick stand of elegant curving leaves make an effective ground cover or visual barrier or border in any wet garden location. Cattail looks great alongside Panicled Bulrush, Northwest Territory Sedge, and Indian Potato.

Environment and Culture

Cattail’s wild home is in marshlands and wet meadows, alongside other native rushes, sedges, and wetland plants. It provides cover and food for an amazing variety of animals, fish, and insects. In a wet location, it is extremely low-maintenance and self-reliant, and makes a great soil stabilizer along streambanks.

Producing more starch per acre than potatoes or rice, and not requiring any annual tillage (as a perennial plant), Cattail is uniquely positioned to make huge contributions to sustainable gardening and agriculture. What’s more, Cattail has an astonishing variety of other uses, from fire starter to basketry material to paper fiber and more. In addition, it has a host of medicinal uses…what can’t Cattail do?!

Harvest, Care, and Preparation

Allow Cattail to spread and multiply before actively harvesting. Cattail’s numerous edible parts each has a slightly different preparation.

In fall and winter, Cattail roots can be harvested by digging around the base of the plant. They can be cut from the main plant without killing the plant. Then, they can be dried and ground into flours for baked good, or peeled and baked fresh like a potato. Pounded roots in water can also yield a starchy slurry that can be used as a great binding agent for gluten free crackers or breads.

In spring, young shoots can be peeled and nibbled raw, or chopped and added to other vegetables in a stirfry. Only one or two shoots should be harvested per plant to keep it healthy and strong.

In late spring/early summer, immature green flower heads rise out of the center of the rosette. They can be cut from the plant and eaten raw or cooked and served alone like asparagus or added to any vegetable dish – sweet and crunchy. If the flower is mature enough, pollen can be harvested at the same time by shaking the flower head into a bag or bucket. Pollen is high in protein and can be added to any baked good. Lastly, if you wait long enough, the nutty-flavored seeds can be eaten raw or toasted, and make a nice topping to salads or served ground with salt as gomasio.

Keep your eye out for future recipes using this all-star native edible plant. Enjoy!

  • Native Range: Western States and beyond!
  • USDA zones: 3-10
  • Ease of Care: Very Easy, if remains wet
  • Deer Resistance: Very High
  • Light Requirements: Full Sun
  • Soil Type: Any
  • Water Requirements: Wet to Aquatic
  • Pollination: Self-Fertile
  • Bearing Age: 2 yrs from seed
  • Size at Maturity: up to 8 feet
  • Plant Spacing: 2 feet
  • Bloom Time: Late Spring
  • Harvest Time: All year long

Typha latifolia
(broadleaf cattail)

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