Our Window on Nature

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Cattails — By Any Other Name

Filed under: Plants — Lowell Christie -- May 20, 2007 @ 10:56 am

CattailsFlagtail, marsh beetle, blackcap, water torch. Visit the shoreline of most lakes, rivers, marshes, and ponds, and you’ll see areas of these grasslike plants stretching as much as 10 feet high above the water. In some places they are called rushes, flags, or Cossack asparagus.

Names used by American Indians are just as descriptive: prairie chicken feathers, eye itch, and roof grass. Since the plant grows on nearly every continent and is native throughout the United States, this multiplicity of names is not surprising. Whether you call it candlewick, cat o’nine tails, or the more familiar cattail, the cattail plant is familiar to most people who venture outdoors.

Although we knew cattail marshes were a habitat for certain birds we chased with binoculars and a camera, we actually took a closer look at this familiar sight during our first year of full-timing. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say, that’s when we had our first taste of this interesting plant.

One of our favorite books of the period was Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons. It was our personal guide to eating our way across the country while avoiding fast-food restaurants. And it had an entire chapter on the edible cattail. In fact, Gibbons called it the “Supermarket of the Swamps.”

The plant even looks like food. Depending upon their location, cattails bloom from late spring to midsummer, and after one has been pollinated, what looks like a hot dog on a stick can be seen poking above the large, grasslike leaves. Some think it looks more like a sausage, but regardless, this distinctive flowering part of the cattail is obvious from a distance.

Cattail blossoms appear in two sexes: male and female. Technically they are flowers, but they are so small you had better bring along a magnifying glass if you want to examine them. When they open, the tiny female flowers are a greenish hue, but before long they turn brown and morph into the familiar brown cylinder. Male flowers don’t hang around very long. They grow on the yellow spike that juts out of the top of the cylinder, and when their pollen is ripe, it drops on the female flowers below. Then the male flowers fall off, leaving the familiar hot dog-shaped stick.

At that time Kaye wanted to try out some wild recipes; Lowell had hip waders and a small shovel; and our dinner salad was just outside the motorhome door. Well, actually, it was just across a mud flat – an extremely muddy mud flat. Lowell remembers it being more like quicksand. But the cattail salad was delicious.

Quoting from the book, Gibbons wrote,

For the number of different kinds of food it produces there is no plant, wild or domesticated, which tops the common cattail.

It can be used as a food source for about half of the year. In the spring the young shoots make a good substitute for asparagus. A bit later, the flowers can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Some mix the yellow pollen with flour to make tasty pancakes or muffins. And the starchy roots can be used as a replacement for potatoes.

Food isn’t the only use for the widespread cattail. For more than 10,000 years American Indians used the leaves of this plant for weaving and for thatching their roofs. When twisted, the fibers of the leaves can be turned into twine. And the hot dog structure, when dipped into animal fat, can be used as a torch that burns for hours.

After the cattail flower matures, the fluffy hairs on the fruit can be used for insulation or as a padding material. During World War II it was used to stuff the seats in tanks and planes, and to fill life preservers.

Beyond its human uses, this plant creates a habitat for many of the creatures that are attracted to wetlands. The seeds of the cattail are so small they provide little in the way of a food source, but geese and muskrats like eating the stems and roots, and in the spring, moose and elk eat the fresh sprouts. Some ducks use the plants for shelter, as long as there is also plenty of open water. In a local pond we often see wood ducks near the stretches of cattails. And marsh wrens and blackbirds (both red-winged and yellow-headed) find the cattails a perfect place to build their nests.

A plant so widespread must be able to reproduce easily, and the cattail actually has two methods. The first method uses seeds. Some cattail spikes (the cylindrical brown tubes) may contain more than 250,000 tiny seeds. The mature fruits are covered with small hairs that allow the seeds to ride on the wind. When the fruit comes in contact with water, it rapidly opens and releases the seed.

This procedure works well for dispersing the plant to new areas, but an existing cattail community is so densely spaced that there is too little light and heat for seeds to effectively sprout. Instead, large cattail stands expand by the use of rhizomes. Rhizomes form in the root structure of the plant, and they creep through the muck three to four inches below the waterline. Because they grow new shoots quickly, this can result in a massively thick stand. And it doesn’t take a scientist to realize that large stands may be made up of the descendants of just a few plants.

As for habitat, cattails aren’t picky as long as the soil stays wet, saturated, or flooded during the growing season. That means they can be seen in meadows, marshes, ponds, and lake margins, but also as floating mats in bogs and irrigation canals. They are, however, usually restricted to areas where the water level remains less than 2 1/2 feet deep. Cattails are so versatile that they may even be spotted growing in brackish marshes along the coast.

Our favorite use of cattail marshes is still to watch wildlife, but recently we discovered a book by Steve Brill called The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook. It has this interesting-sounding recipe called Cattail Fried Rice. Guess what’s for dinner?

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