The lowly cattail is well-known to everyone, nature lover or not. They are one of the most common and easily identified of our water-loving plants. Sunny, marshy places dominated by these sword-like plants are a familiar sight all across America. Most of us easily recognize the long green leaves and hot-dog shaped brown flower spikes.
Dense clusters of cattails grow in shallow water in permanently wet areas and may reach six to eight feet. They have soft green leaves that are long, narrow, flat and spikey. Cattails belong to the genus Typha, and eleven different species are members of the family. There are two species on Presque Isle. One is Typha latifolia, or Common Cattail. The other is Typha angustifolia,or Narrow Leaf Cattail. Now here’s the problem. The Narrow Leaf Cattail is a highly invasive form and can, and is, spreading rapidly on the park. It is hoped that this summer and fall’s aggressive invasive plant removal program will help restore some areas of the park now being attacked by these invasive cattails, plus make a dent in the spread of phragmites and oriental bittersweet.
Cattails are rather pretty plants. They point almost straight upward to avoid shading and are sheathed at the base. Leaves usually rise above the brown flower stalks. The plants do not branch and are made up of seven to nine leaves. Cattails do flower, but the tiny yellowish male flowers, which are so small as to be indistinguishable, are densely packed on the upper spike. Lower on the same spike, brown colored female flowers mass to be pollinated by the powdery male pollen. This now develops into the familiar chestnut sausage-like spike we all know.
Common Cattails have no space between upper male flower areas and the lower female parts, which will become the cattail. The Narrow Leaf Cattail, which is nearly identical to the Common Cattail, has rather large gaps between the two flower sets, is slimmer and has leaves less than a half-inch wide. In order to tell the difference, you need to get close and take a really good look.
Red-winged Blackbirds are probably the animal most associated with cattails. They, seem to love to cling to the side of cattail stalks and squawk at passer-byes. What many people do not know is that they also build their nests on them. Besides the blackbirds, waterfowl and Canada Geese nest among the cattails. Frogs and salamanders will lay their eggs in the water on and between them. In pond-side clusters of cattails, fish will hide or nest among them.
At this time of the year, when young red-wings are moving out of their nest, you can sometimes see them clambering among the sturdy cattail plants, even before they can fly. It is at this time mom and dad keep a sharp eye out for the bullfrog or turtle just waiting for a quick and easy meal. Marsh wrens are also major residents; brown, tiny and very reclusive, the wren’s presence will most likely be heard and not seen.
Muskrats eat Common Cattails and use them to build their houses. Deer, raccoons, rabbits and turkeys all use the cattails as cover. Many insects eat and live on them. Many species of birds search out and use the fluff from the flower heads to line their nests.
For over 30,000 years, humans have used cattails in many various ways. Did you know all parts of the cattail are edible? They are. Early settlers and American Indians used almost all of the cattail for some purpose. The leaves were used to weave baskets, chair seats and floor mats. For many years, the fluffy seed pods were used as insulation for pillows and coats. Even today, glue is made from the stems. Recently, I found out that sometimes the pollen is used in fireworks to produce a yellowing burst of color.
I love to include cattails in my photography because it brings an easily recognizable point-of-interest to the photo. I really hope the more invasive Narrow Leaf Cattail can be controlled on the park as they spread at an alarming rate and kill-off the nature plants within just a few years. The Common Cattail spreads, but is much more conservative in its migration habits.
Next time you are on the park, see if you can tell the difference between the two types of cattails.
See you on the park!!
This post was written by admin