Cattails- "Typha latifolia"

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Sylvia Kirsch

Cattails are the common name for a tall perennial that makes up the genus Typha. They are characterized by creeping rootstock, long, flat leaves, and flowers in terminal spikes. These flowers are brown, cylindrical and have a velvety surface. The upper part of the flower contains the male flowers which drop off after they have bloomed and shed their pollen. The larger lower part of the cattail, the stalk, contains the female flower which develops into a brown compact mass of as many as 300,000 tiny seeds. Each seed has a tuft of fine white hairs that are usually spread by winds when the head opens up in the fall. Most cattails grow to about 1 to 2 meters high.

Most cattails grow in marshes and wetlands. In some areas, such as the Chicago region of Lake Calumet and Wolf Lake, there are thousands of acres covered with dense stands of cattails. A war-time survey showed that they were at least 140 thousand square miles of cattail swamps in the United States. Cattails in modest amounts around a pond or lake can give a very natural appearance to your pond or lake setting. Although of they are in excess, cattails can greatly interfere with pond or lake usage and appearance.

Cattails can become so numerous since they have two means of reproduction. One mean is the tail itself which spreads seeds that are airborne. The other method is the sending out of rhizomes from its larger tube to form new plants nearby. The large tube of the cattail is the main reason why this plant is so hard to control. The tube can get up to twice the size of a potato and it makes pulling the cattail out by the roots almost impossible.

They are three methods of controlling cattails. The first method of controlling cattails is the mechanical removal of cattails. The only form of mechanical removal of a cattail is with a back-hoe with a long enough stick to reach out and pull the root system of the cattail. This controlling method will not cause too much damage to the landscape. Another method is the drowning method and this is done by cutting the cattails off 2-3 inches under the water line. Once the cattails are cut, the oxygen to the root system is cut off and the plant will drown. This method is only effective if you can maintain the water level for a long period of time and if the water drops below the level that you have cut the cattails.

The last method of controlling of cattails is the chemical control. This is the most commonly used control and it has been done in any situation without damage to the landscape or concern over maintaining the water level. The two products that are used are Rodeo and Cidekick. Rodeo is a herbicide of choice and the product Cidekick is the sticking agent that is used to make a mixture stick to the plant. You mix 1 ounce of Rodeo and ounce of Cidekick and this mixture is sprayed onto the cattails in a mist type spray. The best time to spray the cattails is when the cattail is first developing its tails. After the cattails have been sprayed, the cutting down and removing the roots can be done two weeks after. This gives the Rodeo time to get into the root system of the plant and kill it.

Why are cattails important? Cattails are important for lots of winter cover for resident game, and furbearers. They also provide nesting substrate for canvasbacks, redheads, grebes, and other marsh birds. The thermal and escape cover provided by the cattail seems to enhance the survival of some wintering populations of white tailed deer and ring necked pheasants in intensively covered areas. A large number of migrant birds roost in cattail choked wetlands.

One Indian name for the cattail meant "fruit for the papoose’s bed" due to the fluffy masses of seeds that are very soft. During WW II, several million pounds of them were used to stuff life jackets, mattresses, pillows and baseballs. Compressed into a wallboard, they make excellent insulation against sound and heat. For centuries, cattail leaves have been used for caulk barrels, and have been twisted or braided into cords for making rush bottom furniture. The Indians wove the leaves into waterproof and sleeping mats. A stickly substance extracted from the stems may have value as an adhesive for paper, and as sizing in facial and shaving creams.

For food, the core of the rootstock which grows horizontally in the mud is very starchy and can be cooked or eaten like potatoes. It can also be dried and ground into flour for baking and it also substitutes corn starch. The flour can be fermented to produce ethyl alcohol as anti-freeze, as a cheap industrial solvent or for medicinal purposes. Indians made jelly from the rootstocks and can be used in marmalade. The young green flower heads are said to be delicious when boiled or roasted. The pollen from cattails is very abundant and rich in vitamins and minerals. It is also harvested and used in bread by the Indians.