The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, October 9, 2009


Biodiversity Corner Common Cattail

Cattails at the Cranberry Bog. Some are in their summer “cigar” form and others are bursting out in their downy form. (Photo by Kay Fairweather)

Name: The Common Cattail is Typha latifolia. Another common name for it is Broadleaf Cattail, and in some circles it is known as the Cossack Asparagus. We may think of cattail leaves as being narrow, but the species name, latifolia, is from the Latin latus meaning broad and folius meaning leaf. The leaves are very narrow in relation to their length but the name is intended to differentiate the species from another cattail which has even narrower leaves. The common name of cattail refers to the brown, furry cluster of seeds and must have been coined by someone who had a cat with a short, straight tail.

When and where seen: Everyone is probably familiar with the common cattail which grows at the edge of or in shallow water around many of the ponds in town. You can see lots of it at the Cranberry Bog.

Part of my reason for choosing it as the topic is because Terry Ritz spotted a very unusual one at the Cranberry Bog. It was a cat of two tails! At the top of the flower stalk where there is usually a single, cigar-shaped seed cluster, this one had two. They were joined at the bottom and again at the top making a kind of a loop. It could be an example of naturally occuring genetic modification or just a reaction to some physical condition that forced a change in its growth. Either way, it was able to generate twice as many seeds on the same amount of real estate as the other cattails beside it. I have seen many cattails but this is the first one with this “innovation.” Of all the cranberry joints, in all the towns in all the world, this cattail turned up in ours!

Description: The main distinguishing feature of the cattail is the brown, furry seed cluster which is usually about six to eight inches long and about an inch thick. The leaves can get to be eight feet tall but a more typical height is five feet. The leaves are about an inch wide, compared to half an inch for the Narrowleaf Cattail. This time of year, some of the seed clusters are breaking up into soft downy masses while some still have their normal summer form.

The plant has separate male and female flowers. In spring, you will see two distinctly different flowers on the tall stalk. The male flowers are near the tip and the female flowers below. In the common cattail there is no gap between the end of the male flowers and the start of the female flowers while the Narrowleaf Cattail has a noticeable gap.

Both Common and Narrowleaf species grow in the same kind of habitat but they have a territorial understanding – the Common one takes the shallower water and the edges, while the Narrowleaf prefers deeper water.

Supermarket of the swamp: Many of our native plants have been put to use by humans as either a source of food, some kind of healthcare product, or some form of clothing or shelter. Few seem to have as many uses as the cattail, which has been dubbed the supermarket of the swamp.


A cat of two tails at the Cranberry Bog. (Photo by Terry Ritz)

Almost every part of the plant has been used as food; the pollen can be added to many dishes; flour can be extracted from the roots which can also be boiled and eaten mashed like potatoes; the immature flower heads can be eaten like corn on the cob; the young spring shoots can be eaten like asparagus. This is reputedly a Russian favorite; hence the name Cossack Asparagus. Steve Brill has many recipes for cattail in his book The Wild Vegetarian. Most of them use the shoots. An example would be his self-proclaimed superior form of ratatouille which is, of course, called catatouille.

Native Americans used cattail for many purposes besides food. You can see dwellings at Plimouth Plantation covered with mats woven from cattail. Many parts of the plant were used internally and externally for a variety of therapeutic effects. The pollen was used as a hair conditioner. Twine was made from the leaves. The downy seeds were used for baby beds and for insulating moccasins. Brill warns about allergic skin reactions from the down, and, as a result of personal experience, he suggests using a thick, sturdy material for the casing if you are going to make a pillow. On the plus side, his pillow was beautifully soft, but on the “down” side, the hives were very painful.

Wildlife uses: We probably know only some of the uses of cattail by other animals. These would include the rhizomes as food for geese and muskrats; foliage as construction material for muskrat lodges, and the downy seeds as nest lining for Red-winged Blackbirds.

Sources: The Wild Vegetarian Cookbook, by Steve Brill; Wild Edible Plants of New England, by Joan Richardson; Gardening Encyclopedia, by Donald Wyman; the website of Native American Technology and Art at

A bounteous growth of Jack-o-lantern mushrooms on School Street. They are poisonous but fun to see, not only bright orange but they glow green in the dark. (Photo by Bill Churchill)


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