Cattail (Typha spp.) is a large grass-like aquatic plant that is found in almost every corner of the globe. It is of immense importance to wildlife, water quality and traditional cultures - and it can even be used for landscaping purposes.
Growing Cattail in Your Garden
Cattails have a slender, graceful appearance that can be an asset in the garden if used appropriately. Because of their size, cattails are primarily suited to large water gardens, where they make a dramatic statement and can be used as a green backdrop for smaller aquatic plants.
Where to Get Cattail Plants
There is a smaller species of cattail that is often available in garden centers with the aquatic plants, called narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia). This species grows to a maximum of four feet in height and is known for its graceful half-inch wide leaves. This species and all other cattails are hardy in USDA zones 3-11.
Besides looking for cattails at your local garden center, you may also consider transplanting a few rhizomes from a nearby wetland. This is often the easiest way to obtain plant material. Just be sure you have permission to dig up any plant matter if you don't own the land.
How to Plant Cattails
Cattails thrive in six to eight inches of water, but will grow without standing water, as long as the soil stays constantly wet.
Cattails are generally planted in large pots which should be weighted down with bricks at the bottom to keep them from floating. Submerge them in a few inches of water and divide the roots every few years.
Cattails are not bothered by pests or disease, and the only maintenance is to cut down the stalks in early spring before new growth emerges. The cottony seedheads provide winter interest in the garden, as well as a food source for birds.
The rhizomes may need to be divided every few years if it seems like the area is getting too crowded, or if the cattails are growing into areas you don't want them to go. To do this, simply pull the plant up, cut the rhizome so it still has at least one sprout for the stems to grow from, and then replant.
Finding and Planting Cattail Seeds
Cattail seeds are cottony, wispy -- if you've seen the puffs of dandelion seeds, that's similar to what individual cattail seeds look like. If you live near an area where cattails grow, keep an eye on the plants in late summer, after the flower heads turn deep brown. They'll start splitting open and releasing their seeds, and you can collect them then. A single cattail bloom can release 20,000 seeds or more, so it's safe to say that taking a few won't be a problem.
If you do not live in an area where cattail naturally grows, you can purchase cattail seeds online. You'll want to make sure you're buying from a reputable seller; look at reviews to see if other buyers have had success growing that retailer's seeds.
Once you have your seeds, you're ready to plant.
- Start the seeds indoors or outside in a cold frame in late spring.
- Soak the seeds for a few hours before sowing, since moisture aids germination.
- Any good quality, well-draining soil will work. Thoroughly moisten the soil before planting.
- Press the cattail seeds to the top of the soil's surface; you don't need to bury them.
- Water to further settle the seed onto the soil's surface.
- Keep in a bright spot. The seeds geminate in about two weeks.
- You may need to transfer your cattail seedlings to larger containers, moving the outside once the weather warms.
- By late summer, they'll be large enough to plant in your water garden or near your pond.
Cattails can also be used to landscape natural water features, for those lucky enough to have one in their home landscape. However, exercise caution when planting cattail in these circumstances, as it spreads aggressively and will colonize large areas if there is suitable habitat and is nearly impossible to eradicate once established.
Cattail in the Environment
Cattail is ubiquitous in natural wetland environments, but it will grow almost anywhere with ample moisture and sun. The margins of rivers, streams and lakes are all places that cattail is found, as well as roadside ditches, irrigation canals, and farm ponds.
Growing four to eight feet in height with one-inch wide leaves that taper to a rounded point at the top, cattail differs from most other large grass-like wetland species (like rushes and reeds) in that the foliage is flat, rather than round.
The characteristic seedhead also makes cattail easy to identify. It emerges from the foliage in midsummer about the size and shape of a hotdog. It is green at first, but ripens to a deep brown color in fall and becomes soft and velvety to the touch.
By the end of fall, the immense quantity of seeds in each seedhead begin to separate from the stalk, appearing as a cottony substance that drifts away on the wind.
Cattail leaves turn brown in winter, but often remain standing until the following spring when the bright green shoots emerge again from the underwater root system.
Ecological Significance of Cattails
Wetlands act as water filters in the watersheds where they occur and, as one of the most abundant wetland species, cattail has an important role to play in providing this essential ecological service.
- Streambanks are stabilized by the extensive rhizomatous root systems of cattail, helping to prevent erosion and sedimentation of waterways.
- The dense stands of foliage slow down the water as it moves through, trapping sediment and allowing it to collect on the bottom, helping to reduce turbidity downstream.
- Cattails absorb excess nutrients and other pollutants that end up in waterways as runoff from fertilizer, animal wastes, and industrial sites.
- Their root systems provide extensive surface area for bacteria that help to break down harmful substances that may be in the water.
Cattail forms extensive stands in wet places, creating habitat for a wide range of species from bird life to aquatic species, such as muskrats, red-wing blackbirds, and many frog and amphibian species. Many wetland species also eat various parts of the plant and use it to build their nests.
Traditional Uses for Cattail
Cattail has been a plant of many uses by traditional cultural groups wherever it is found.
- Its tuberous roots were used as a starchy vegetable, along with young shoots and immature seedheads.
- The foliage has been widely used in basketry for thatched roofs and to make mats and chair seats.
- It is also considered a medicinal species, used to heal wounds and inflammation.
The roots can be harvested at any time of year, while the other edible portions are only good to eat when they are young and tender - in early spring for the shoots and in early summer for the seedheads. If harvesting the foliage for craft purposes, it's best to wait until it has grown to its full size in summer for the maximum strength of the material.
Cattail has more uses and environmental benefits than most plants. Though its uses in the garden are relatively minor, it's a wonderful wild species to become acquainted with.