The cattail plant is ubiquitous in many parts of the United States. In Ohio, it grows in drainage ditches and along roadsides, ponds, and lakes. There are two main varieties of cattail plant that grow in the United States: Typha latifolia (wider leaf, likes shallower water) and Typha angustifolia (thinner leaf, prefers deeper water). The genus name Typha is Greek for “marsh,” which points to its preferred wet habitat.
Cattail Plant Ecology
Cattails are aquatic plants typically found in calm water, especially at the edges of ponds, lakes, marshes, and shorelines. The three to 10-foot tall cattail plant stem grows up from below the surface of the water, producing a sturdy upright stem and slender leaves. The “flower” is the well-known hot dog shaped part near the top of the stalk. Within the flower rests thousands of light, wind-spread seeds.
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In the spring, tender new shoots appear first, which then form the green flowers. By winter the flowers dry out, turning brown and breaking apart. The wind carries the seeds off to colonize new areas. The cattail plant is so good at spreading itself that it is often the first new growth in wet mud.
Why Grow the Cattail Plant in Your Pond
The cattail plant is often used at the edges of bodies of water to help stabilize the shoreline. If you plan to stock your pond, the cattail plant can provide concealment and protection for smaller fish. The cattail is also habitat for grubs that fish eat. Waterfowl and some songbirds also like to nest in the tall cattail stalks. Ours are always full of Red-Winged Blackbirds. Our ducks spend hot days in the cattails, diving for those fish that are trying to hide under them.
Maintenance and Control
Whether you introduce it to your pond or inherit it on your property, the cattail plant will require maintenance and control. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources considers the cattail a well-established invasive species. It can easily take over your pond and prevent other species from growing, but with some good farm pond maintenance you can keep it in check and reap the benefits for your pond habitat.
When we bought our farm, one side of our pond was full of cattails. As several years passed, they grew denser and began to spread out into the middle of the pond. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommends controlling the cattail plant by trimming the stalks just under the surface of the water after the first frost or applying an herbicide to the leaves. This should be done every few years to keep the plant growth in check.
In Letters to a Young Farmer, Amigo Bob Cantisano advises young farmers to learn from the experience of elders in their communities. He writes, “Many of us have been farming for three or four decades, and we have learned much from trial and error, eventually creating success. There’s a lot to learn from us geezers; don’t be shy. We’re usually happy to help.” Taking this to heart, we consulted with our neighbors who built our pond and house before eventually moving across the street.
Their advice was actually fairly close to the department of natural resources recommendation. Wait until the pond freezes solid with at least four inches of ice. Then go out on it with a snow shovel and cut the stalks off where they meet the ice. Best case, the pond melts and refreezes, covering the remaining stubs with ice and cutting off the air supply to the root. This will provide control for a while longer. Even if it doesn’t freeze over, simply trimming the stalks back will help from keeping the cattail plant from taking over the pond. This is now one of our winter chores the first time the pond freezes. It’s been a fairly successful technique for us.
Uses for the Cattail Plant
The cattail plant’s uses are prolific. A commonly cited Boy Scout motto is “You name it and we’ll make it from cattails.” Many websites detail how to survive if all you have are cattails. You probably won’t need to survive off cattails, but it is amazing how many uses there are for this plant. Maybe you’ll try out a few of these projects to support your efforts at self-reliant living or just for a little adventure.
Food – for Humans and Animals
Just about all of the cattail plant is edible from the rhizome at its base to the stalk and young shoots, to the flower and pollen. Though it is difficult to extract, the rhizome holds more edible starch than any other green plant. That’s right, even more than potatoes! The starch has to be separated from the fiber, which can upset the stomach if eaten. There’s a great how-to on several ways to extract the starch as well as some recipes for using the flour on a website called “Eat the Weeds: Cattails – A Survival Dinner.”
In early spring, the young shoots can be peeled and eaten raw or boiled. They taste a lot like asparagus. When the flower matures in mid-summer, collect the pollen and use it like flour.
Beef Magazine says young cattails can be given to cattle as an emergency feed and may have a near equivalent feed value to straw. Some farmers tell of cows eating the cattails right out of the pond. They seem to enjoy all parts of the plant in spring and early summer.
According to selfnutrition.com, one ounce of narrow cattail shoots contains eight percent of our necessary daily value of Vitamin K and 11 percent of our daily value of the mineral Manganese. It also contains Magnesium, Potassium, Calcium, Vitamin B6, and trace amounts of six other vitamins and minerals.
Dry the leaves of the cattail plant and use them to cane chairs. This seems to be a dying art, with few artisans remaining who are proficient in the process. You can find a detailed description of how to harvest and process cattail leaves for caning on TheWickerWoman.com.
Stuffing & Insulation
Use the fluff from the dried flowers to stuff pillows or make a rudimentary mattress. Or insulate coats or shoes with it, as a replacement for down. You can even insulate a simple house with cattail fluff. Native Americans used it for diapers and menstrual pads because it is also rather absorbent.
More Uses – the List Just Keeps Going!
From home and boat construction to biofuel, handmade papers, and fire starters – the more you research, the more possible uses for the cattail plant appear. The list just seems endless!
If you have the time to spend on maintaining this plant so it doesn’t take over your farm pond, it will reward you with many interesting pursuits on your homestead. Which will you try first?