* Flower spike brown, cigar-shaped, made of tightly packed seeds, on
straight, stiff stalks. This is the female part of the plant.
* Male flowering spike a slender, fluffy "tail" of pale brown, which
will disappear later in the summer. In this species, the tail touches
the female spike, but some cattails have a gap between the two.
* Leaves erect and blade-like.
* Height: 3-9'.
* Habitat: Wet places, such as marshes and shallow edges of ponds. Cattails
grow in dense stands.
* Range: Throughout the United States.
* If you ever find yourself stranded in a cattail marsh,
do not despair! Parts of the plant are edible for about half
the year. In early spring, the peeled young shoots can be boiled
like asparagus; in late spring, young flower spikes can be boiled
and eaten like corn on the cob; in early summer, the yellow pollen
from the spikes can be made into flour, and in late summer the
starchy roots can be boiled like potatoes. Plus, adhesive can
be made from the stems, rayon thread from the "tails", oil from
the seeds, and insulation and bedding from the soft spikes.
* A note for the aspiring Transcendentalists out there: To emulate
Henry David Thoreau, pull a small tuft from the dark brown spike
and watch as it expands into a downy handful. Thoreau used this
little trick to demonstrate how tightly the seeds are packed
into the spike.
* Cattails clone and form dense colonies from creeping rhizomes
under the ground. New shoots appear on the runners and grow through
the ground in early spring. One colony on Lake Erie expanded
over 17 feet in one year! If you cut a leaf or flowering spike,
note the spongy nature of these structures. The tubes allow air,
and with it oxygen, to diffuse into the roots of the cattail,
sustaining the roots and allowing decomposition immediately adjacent
to the roots. Because waterlogged soils are often devoid of oxygen,
this simple morphology allows the cattail to obtain nutrients
and thrive where few other plants can grow.