Typha latifolia – Broadleaf cattail
At a Glance:
- Family: Typhaceae
- Plant Type: herbaceous plant, looking similar to a very large grass
- Distribution: Native and present in all of North America, except not native to Hawaii (although present)
- Habitat: marshes, ponds, ditches, wetlands, and other wet slow-moving areas.
- Height: 3-9 feet tall
- Flower/Fruits: Cylindrical stalk, brown and firm at the end of a stem. It is comprised of two parts – a male, upper portion, which is very noticeable when covered in yellow pollen. It will wither in the fall and leave a bare stem. The lower portion is the female flowers, which matures into seeds with a puffy, cotton covering used for seed dispersal in the wind.
- Flowering Season: June-July
- Leaves: tall, flat, slender leaves, green on both sides, with a pointed tip.
- Generation: Perennial – leaves die back every year, but the stalks with flowers remain through the winter
- Notable feature: in narrowleaf cattail (T. angustifolia) there is a gap of stem only between the male and female flowers. Although, T. angustifolia is often found in saline areas, determining species on leaf measurements (size) is not enough, since they overlap. Even after the male flowers disappears, you can still see a smooth area on the T. angustifolia remaining, where the T. latifolia has texture on the stem right above the female flower.
Restoration and Conservation
Cattails can create a dense stand in ponds and along slow streams. At times, they can be aggressive and take over but are usually limited by the amount of water available. Cattails can slow down the water flow through an area, and absorb nitrogen and phosphate into their leaves, cleaning up the water as it passes through. Birds use cattails extensively. The leaves and fluffy seeds have been used in nesting. The stands provide protection for many birds to hide within. In the UWB/CC Wetlands, look for red-winged blackbirds that nest within.
The broadleaf cattail is entirely edible by humans, and Native American used the plant year-round depending on what part of the plant was edible. In springtime, the new shoots were eaten like a fresh green vegetable. The flower stalks could be boiled and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. The pollen is quite nutritious, with a nutty flavor, which was added for baking with other flours. In the fall and winter, the underground stems (rhizomes) were harvested and cooked up. Comparatively, cattails contain more calcium, iron, and potassium than potatoes or rice.
Besides food, native tribes across North America used the plants for many household purposes. The long flat leaves were used as a weaving fiber for mats, baskets, and shelters. The soft hairs on the seeds were used for insulation, pillows, diapers, wound and burn dressings, and tinder to start fires.
References and Resources
- FEIS/USDA: https://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis/plants/graminoid/typlat/all.html
- WTU Image Herbarium: http://biology.burke.washington.edu/herbarium/imagecollection/taxon.php?Taxon=Typha%20latifolia
This article was written by Sarah Verlinde. For questions regarding the UWB/CC Plant Tour, contact Sarah at firstname.lastname@example.org.