Cattail’s: scientific classification

Typha is a genus of about ten species of monocotyledonous flowering plants in the monogeneric family, Typhaceae. The genus has a largely Northern Hemisphere distribution, but is essentially cosmopolitan. These plants are known as bulrush or bullrush (mainly in British English), cattail (mainly in American English), or in some older British texts as reedmace.

Cattails or bulrushes are wetland plants, typically 1 to 3 m tall (T. minima is smaller: 0.5-1 m), with spongy, strap-like leaves and starchy, creeping stems (rhizomes). The leaves are alternate and mostly basal to a simple, jointless stem that eventually bears the flowers. The rhizomes spread horizontally beneath the surface of muddy ground to start new upright growth, and the spread of cattails is an important part of the process of open water bodies being converted to vegetated marshland and eventually dry land.
Typha plants are monoecious, wind-pollinated, and bear unisexual flowers developing in dense, complex spikes. The male flower spike develops at the top of the vertical stem, above the female flower spike (see figure below). The male (staminate) flowers are reduced to a pair of stamens and hairs and wither once the pollen is shed, leaving a short, bare stem portion above the female inflorescence. The dense cluster of female flowers forms a cylindrical spike some 10 to as much as 40 cm long and 1 to 4 cm broad. Seeds are minute (about 0.2 mm long), and attached to a thin hair or stalk, which effects wind dispersal. Typha are often among the first wetland plants to colonise areas of newly exposed wet mud.

The most widespread species is Typha latifolia, extending across the entire temperate Northern Hemisphere. T. angustifolia is nearly as widespread, but does not extend so far north. T. domingensis is a more southerly American species, extending from the U.S. to South America, while T. laxmannii, T. minima and T. shuttleworthii are largely restricted to Asia and parts of southern Europe.

Typha plants grow along lake margins and in marshes, often in dense colonies, and are sometimes considered a weed in managed wetlands. The plant’s root systems help prevent erosion, and the plants themselves are often home to many insects, birds and amphibians.

Cattails During Wartime

Prior to the war, the United States had imported 90% of its kapok supply from the Dutch East Indies (in the days before the introduction of man-made fillers, “kapok”, a tropical plant fiber was an important padding in such items as life jackets and mattresses). When the islands fell to the Japanese, our kapok supply was cut off . . . and some form of replacement had to be found immediately.

It was then that a Chicago company began to substitute cattail cotton in furniture cushions and baseballs. Soon afterward, the Navy decided to look into the possibility of using the fuzzy heads of the aquatic weed in life belts and aviation jackets. A wartime water-resistance test demonstrated that-even after 100 hours of submersion-the “swamp down” was capable of maintaining buoyancy. So, cattail fluff, (along with milkweed down), was briefly seen as a “war effort resource”.

Other Uses For Cattails

Native American tribes used cattail down to line moccasins and papoose boards. An Indian name for cattail meant, “fruit for papoose’s bed”. They also harvested cattails for hemp. They also wove cattail leaves into waterproof mats for the sides of their lodges, and sleeping mats on their travels. Some Indians made jelly from the rootstocks and they can be used for marmalade. The pollen, which is very abundant and rich in vitamins and minerals, was harvested and used in bread by American Indians.

Pioneers employed the down when stuffing quilts and dolls, dressing wounds, and providing tinder for fires sparked by flint and steel.

Compressed into wallboard, cattail down makes excellent insulation against sound and heat. Before the war Germans used boards made of compressed cattail fibers in construction.

A drying oil similar to linseed, a cooking oil and a wax can be extracted from the seeds, leaving a by-product of meal which is used in cattle and chicken feeds.
In Japan, cattails are often used by Japanese to tease and rub cats, (as is often seen in manga and anime).

For centuries, cattail leaves have been used to caulk barrels, and twisted or braided into cords for making rush-bottomed furniture.

Soft fibers, extracted from the leaves and stems by treating them chemically, can be used like jute for stuffing furniture and making twine, burlap or webbing.

A stickly substance extracted from the stems may have value as an adhesive for paper, as sizing, or in favial and shaving creams.

Edible Uses

The rhizomes are a palatable, nutritious and productive root vegetable, generally harvested in the fall and winter. The pollen is also sometimes used as a flour supplement, and the young green flowering stalks can be boiled and eaten like sweetcorn.

The core of the thick branching rootstock, which grows horizontally in the mud, is very starchy. It can be cooked and eaten like potatoes, or dried and ground into flour used in baking and also as a substitute for corn starch. This flour can be fermented to produce ethyl alcohol valuable as anti-freeze, as a cheap industrial solvent, and for medicinal purposes. It contains more fat but slightly less protein than potato or wheat flours, and only potato flour has more minerals.

In spring the young shoots, which taste something like a cucumber and are called “Cossack asparagus”, are peeled and eaten as a vegetable or in salads. The young green flower-heads are said to be delicious when boiled or roasted. The pollen, which is very abundant and rich in vitamins and minerals, was harvested and used in bread by our American Indians.

Recipes With Cattails

Fried Rice

Cattail Food Chains

Cattails are involved in a variety of food chains and food webs. One food chain would be as follows: Cattails are eaten by crayfish which are eaten by water bug beetles which are eaten by ducks which are eaten by hawks. The second food chain also begins with cattails which are eaten by muskrats. Lastly, cattails are eaten by the blue gill fish, which are eaten by the fox, bear, or coyote. These chains and others make up a food web when interlinked. Cattails are producers which means they are always at the bottom of the food chain/web. All food chains begin with the sun.

The Purple Loosestrife

In North America, the native cattails are increasingly being supplanted by the invasive purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria.

Even plants like cattails have to compete for sunlight, water, and living space with other plants. One of the cattail’s sworn enemies is an alien (introduced from some other place) European intruder, the Purple Loosestrife plant. Purple Loosestrife first arrived in North America from Europe about 150 years ago as a decorative plant for landscaping. However, because of its rapid growth and abundant flowering, the weed has become an environmental menace.

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