Species distinguishing characteristics:
- Long, spongy grass-like leaves
- Velvety brown seed head like a hot dog on a stick
- Downy seed heads persist in winter
- Grows in dense patches in wet areas
- Aquatic perennials with starchy rhizomes
- Alternate grass-like leaves that emerge above water
- Dense cylindrical or spherical flower heads at the top of stems
- Tiny male and female flowers in separate heads on same stalk (female flower heads in the lower part; male flower heads above)
- Fruit is a single, tiny beaked seed dispersed by a tuft of downy parachute-like hairs
Aquatic perennial, 1-2 m (occasionally 3 m) tall, that grows in dense patches.
Leaves and stems:
Long, flat, sword-shaped leaves 1-2 cm wide, and 1-2 m long. Leaves are grass-like but spongy or pithy. Stiff flowering stems are cylindrical, unbranched, and have no joints. Clusters of leaves sheath one another at the base of the stem.
A spike of flowers, 10-20 cm long, at the top of the stem form the velvety “cat’s tail” that resembles a hot dog on a stick. Brown female flower heads, comprised of thousands of minute flowers, form the lower portion of the flower spike. Thousands of light yellow to brown male flowers form the upper portion of the spike; which wither and fall off after pollination, leaving a bare stem tip. Male and female flowers consist of highly reduced bristle-like petals and sepals.
Fleshy white creeping roots, or rhizomes, extend about 25 cm horizontally from each plant then form buds that grow into new cattail shoots.
Tiny, oval, hard-coated seeds (achenes) surrounded by a tuft of fluffy down. Long hairs in the downy tuft help seeds float and attach to waterfowl for long-distance dispersal.
In ponds, lakes, wetlands, ditches, and other bodies of shallow to moderately deep water at low- to mid-elevations.
Cattails provide food and shelter for a variety of mammals, waterfowl, and nesting birds. They have been called the “supermarket of the swamp” by Euell Gibbons, a pioneer of edible and useful plants. In early spring, the raw or cooked white core of young shoots tastes like a combination of cucumber and asparagus. Shoots are also a favorite of moose (Alces alces) and elk (Cervus elaphus). For a short window of time in early summer, cattail pollen can be used as bright yellow flour by shaking flower heads into a bag. Immature flower heads can be harvested later in summer when green and steamed or boiled like corn on the cob. The roots are edible all year except during the summer when they exhaust their stored starch for new growth. Roots and tender root buds can be eaten roasted, boiled, or made into flour. Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus)and waterfowl also eat cattail roots.
Stalks and leaves can be used to weave chair bottoms and mats. Life preservers and quilts made during World War I were filled with the cattail’s fluffy down, and the Blackfoot people used the fluffy down for bedding, diapers, and as an absorbent wound dressing. The down can be invaluable during cold winter days as insulation when stuffed into gloves and socks, or as tinder for fire starting.