Cattails are one of the most common and easily identified of our water-loving plants. Most people are familiar with the long green leaves and hot-dog shaped brown flower spikes of our common native cattail, Typha latifolia. It is found growing in dense stands in areas with shallow water or seasonal flooding, or as a narrow band along the margins of deeper water. It is a widespread plant, found throughout most of North America, Europe, Asia and Africa.
Washington also harbors another cattail species, Typha angustifolia, or narrow leaf cattail. It is an invader from other parts of the country, and so far is only known from a couple of locations. For this article I will concentrate on the common cattail, and the benefits it provides.
Cattails are sometimes thought of as a nuisance along lake margins. However, they and other shoreline plants can perform important functions that help keep a lake healthy. One such benefit is they filter runoff as it flows into the lake. This helps reduce nutrients as well as mud which enter lakes from surrounding land. They also help prevent shoreline erosion from waves created by wind or boats. A healthy plant community along the shoreline can work wonders in keeping lakefront property intact. In addition, cattails provide important habitat for many species of wildlife and birds. Redwing blackbirds and many ducks and geese nest in them, and some animals such as muskrats, eat them. Even upland songbirds will use fluff from the flowers to line their nests.
One of the most interesting aspects about cattails is how humans have used this plant through the centuries. To quote an early advocate of natural foods, ‘many parts are edible’. In spring the rootstocks and rhizomes were an important food source for native peoples when other food was scarce. These roots are quite nutritious, containing more starch than potatoes and more protein than rice. The young shoots are reported to be tasty as cooked vegetables, and the pollen can be used in baked goods. In addition to food, cattails have also provided people with building materials. The dried leaves were often woven into furniture and mats, and their pulp and fibers can be made into paper and string. Even the fluff from the seed heads has been used for padding, bedding and insulation. Cattails also have medicinal value. Many cultures have used the roots to treat intestinal maladies and burns.
So, before lamenting the vigorous growth of cattails along your favorite lake or river, remember what this simple, attractive plant is doing while it’s long slender leaves wave in the breeze.
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