By Jeanne Henderson
What comes to mind when you picture a marsh? I immediately think of cattails with their tall green flat leaves waving in the breeze.
In terms of their abundance and ecological importance, cattails are the classic wetland plants that characterize marshes. Forming dense colonies around the shoreline, cattails grow in water up to 2 feet deep. At their base, rhizomes spread horizontally just below ground, anchored by side roots in the soft mud. New sprouts emerge in the spring along the rhizome, with the leaves developing before the stem. The round stem supports the flower clusters, which appear in June, looking like green cylinders. At the stem tip, the male staminate flower is up to 5 inches long and full of pollen. The female pistillate flower grows below that, becoming 5-8 inches long and almost an inch thick. The male flower disintegrates after releasing its pollen, leaving a bare stem tip. After pollination occurs, the cattails turn brown and persist for many months until they break open in a fluffy downy mass with the tiny seeds attached. Wind disperses the seeds.
Two common species grow throughout Michigan. The broad-leaved cattail Typha latifolia has 1-inch-wide leaves and the male and female flowers touch on the stem. The narrow-leaved cattail Typha angustifolia has half-inch-wide leaves and a small gap separates the two flowers.
Cattails adapt to living in saturated conditions. The leaves and stem are comprised of spongy tissue with many air spaces that allow oxygen and carbon dioxide to exchange between the roots and atmosphere. The flexible plants can sway in the wind and waves. Cattails’ ecological benefits include reducing erosion, stabilizing soil and buffeting storm damage. Those growing near fields and lawns can accumulate pesticide residues, thus cleaning the water. In some locations, cattails dominate by not allowing growing space and sunshine for other native plants. However, when muskrats move in, they eat the cattail tubers, carry off stems and leaves to make their domed homes and create openings through the cattails.
Red-winged blackbirds build camouflaged nests in brown cattail stems and leaves left standing from last year. After weaving a small bowl suspended above the water surface, the female blackbird hides down inside, laying and incubating her three to five eggs.
Tales of the Tails
The marsh wren places wads of plant material into a globular shape interlaced between the upright cattail stems, then makes a side entrance. The nest is invisible to all but its occupants, who are also suitably camouflaged.
The tiny cattail moth caterpillars feed on the seeds inside the brown cattail during winter, weaving silk threads to hold them in place. By spring, they turn into cocoons inside the cattail fluff, hoping to remain warm and protected. Black-capped chickadees probe the cattails in winter – and by early spring red-winged blackbirds do the same, hungry for any insects they can find.
Folded-over leaf tips forming a triangular “box” indicate the presence of a sac spider. She folds the leaf over herself, secures it with silk, deposits an egg mass and rests inside the shelter until she dies. The spiderlings’ first meal will be their mother’s body before they leave the chamber.
Humans use cattails too. Harvest rhizomes from late autumn to early spring for an edible source of protein, then scrape the starch from the tough fibers and crush into flour. Young sprouts can be cut, peeled and eaten raw or boiled.
Historically, Native Americans tied cattail leaves into mats for the walls of summer wigwams. They used the fluffy down to line their moccasins and for diaper absorbent.