This cosmopolitan genus includes some 10 very similar species.
They have tough, fibrous, spear-shaped leaves that can grow to form
a dense thicket of foliage around the margins of ponds or
Their most distinguishing feature is their cylindrical seed heads
that develop on stems up to 10 ft (3 m) high.
Flowering colors: Brown
Cultivation: These plants demand permanently moist soil and will
grow in a few inches of water. They tend to fill and drain a
pond—they are an important source of peat—so plant only where they
can be controlled.
Propagate from seed or by division in spring.
How do these tall thin leaves manage to stand up so straight? The
leaves have a spongy cross-section with air channels to help them
float. And throughout their length, the leaves twist gently, adding
to their strength. The air channels also bring air to the roots.
The male and female flowers are separated by about 3 cm of stem.
The males are on the top of the "stick" and wither away soon after
the flowering season, while the female flowers are below.
Bees often gather at the male flowers filling their "pollen baskets"
to the brim (left).
The ripening "fruits" are tightly packed together and look like a
brown sausage on a stick. When the seeds ripen, they fluff up and
the sausage disintegrates as the seeds are blown away by the wind.
The seeds can only grow if they land on water and are submerged
for some time. They will die if they arrive on dry land. Cattail
seeds have special adaptations to maximise the possibility of their
seeds landing on water. The seeds only fluff up in dry weather, so
the seeds won't land and get stuck on wet ground. Even when the seed
lands on water, the umbrella shaped fluff continues to catch the
wind so they skate across the surface for a distance before the
fluff folds and the seed sinks. The seed is adapted to grow in
oxygen poor soil.
Uses: The American Indians used cattails extensively. As building
materials, cattails are used in making thatch. The dried stalks are
used to weave bags, mats and other household items. They are also
used as fuel for fires. The fluffy seeds are used to stuff pillows
and other insulating clothing. As food, every part of the cattail
can be eaten. The core of young flower shoots are tender and eaten
raw (said to taste like cucumbers). The rhizomes can be processed to
produce flour, as well as the seeds (the fluffy parts are burnt
off). Green flower stems are cooked on the stick and eaten like
corn-on-the-cob. Other parts that are eaten include young shoots and
lining. Cattails also stabilise shorelines, preventing soil erosion,
and also keep down bottom sediments, so the water is not clouded.
Cattails have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots and return
this valuable mineral to the soil.