Common Cattail (Typha latifolia)

Common Cattail 

The Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) also know as the Broadleaf Cattail is an emergent plant found on the shores of French Hill Pond in great numbers. It belongs to the Cattail Family (Typhaceae) and order Typhales. Typha is from the Greek for "bog." Latifolia is Latin for "broad leaf." The photograph above was taken on French Hill Pond in 2009. The leaves of this plant are long and spear-like. They can be up to one inch (2.5 centimeters) wide and are taller than the stem of the plant. The height of this plant can be as much as nine feet (2.7 meters) and a mature plant is generally more than three feet (0.9 meters) tall. The very similar Narrow-leaved Cattail (Typha augustifolia) is also found in French Hill Pond.

Each plant has separate male and female flowers on a single stem. The female flowers are on a large brown spike near the top of the stem. Atop the female spike is a smaller, lighter-colored spike containing the male flowers. These spikes can each be up to six inches (15 centimeters) long. After the male flowers lose their pollen, they wither and create a bare stalk. As the female flowers ripen, they turn into a dense, cotton-like fluff. The microscopic seeds are attached to hair-like filaments that are dispersed by the wind as the female spike disintegrates. A ripe female flower is shown in the photograph below. Notice how the male flower has shriveled and disappeared.

Ripe Cattail

Dense stands of Common Cattails are formed on the shore or in shallow water. They spread by creeping rhizomes into the pond and along the shore as well as by seeding. The proliferation of this plant is frequently associated with a wetland being transformed into a dry meadow. However, this process does not appear to be significant in French Hill Pond. Instead, Common Cattails help prevent erosion through their dense root systems and filter water runoff. They do crowd out other plants.

Cattails are in flower from May to July.

Common Cattail stands serve as shelter for animals. Red-winged Blackbirds are particularly fond of cattail stands. The next photograph shows a stand of cattails in French Hill Pond.

Cattail Stand

Cattails provide food for a number of animals including people. Indigenous Americans and early settlers ground the rootstock into meal for food. The flower spikes can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. The pollen can be collected and used as flour. The leaves can be cooked and eaten. Young leaves and leaf tips can be used in salads.

Birds use the fluff from the ripened female flowers as nesting material. This cattail down may also be used to start fires and was used by Native Americans to line moccasins and papoose bedding. This down may also be used as baby powder. Currently, cattail down is used to stuff clothing and pillows.

The rootstock of cattails is used to make medicine. The stems can be made into candles.

Recent research has shown that cattails are excellent sources of ethanol. There is even a possibility that this plant can remove arsenic from drinking water. Clearly, the Common Cattail is a very useful plant.


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