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Cattail plants grow only in wetlands, and their appearance is unique. They are called cattails because a cat's tail on top of a spiky branch instead of atop the cat describes them nicely. The two types most common in the United States are Typha latifolia and the narrow-leafed kind; T. Angustifolia.
Once they have established themselves, cattails tend to flourish profusely. The original cattail on top of the stalk receives pollination and explodes in a tuft of fluff by autumn. Parachuted seeds ride the wind across ponds and muck, establishing themselves in new beds. One method of reproduction seems too simple for cattails, however, and they do not depend upon parachute travel alone to procreate. Wetland Plants For Zone 5 spread just as well through their thick, white roots, called rhizomes.
Cattails, because of their compact rooting system, keep soil established along the edges of lakes and ponds. They prevent severe shore erosion caused by wind and boats. The large, white roots have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in them as well, and cattails return this valuable mineral to the surrounding soil.
Cattails, by their very density, provide great shelter and nesting sites for water birds and fish. Bees love to visit the male plants, filling up on the profuse pollen and toting it away to hives. The 'cat' of the cattail provides excellent material for lining nests. Marsh wrens select cattail leaves and weave them into nests shaped like balls hung upon the stalks. Naturally, the females fill the nests with available down and lay their eggs in beds fit for royalty.
Cattail down has been used for human nests as well, making an excellent filler for pillows and mattresses.
Cattails growing in thickets around lakes do an essential job as filters. Runoff to the lakes often carries way too many nutrients and mud. This combination would overwhelm the lake, causing a wild bloom of algae and silt-filled bottom. Cattails sift this rich combo through their thick roots before it can enter a lake or pond.
Cattails are tasty to a variety of animals, as well as humans. Geese love the underwater roots, and ducks go for the tiny seeds. Moose spend a lot of time lounging in northern waters, and they dine upon cattail leaves at the end of winter when other pickings are thin. Muskrats go all out, eating the roots and using the sheets to construct their lodges.
Cattails seem an ordinary, leafy shore-side plant, but their many environmental assets are a hidden gold-mine.