Hansen's Northwest Native Plant Database

Typha latifolia (Cattail, Reed Mace, Bull Rush, Black Paddy)



 Plantae – Plants


 Tracheobionta – Vascular plants


 Spermatophyta – Seed plants


 Magnoliophyta – Flowering plants


 Liliopsida – Monocotyledons






 Typhaceae – Cat-tail family


 Typha L. – cattail


 Typha latifolia L. – broadleaf cattail

This duck stopped paddling to stare at me as I took it's picture!

Description: Cattails are perhaps the best known of the wetland plants and yet very few people have a respect for their incredible ecological and wildlife value. The plant is tall, with stems reaching from 3 – 10’ and thick, strap-like leaves, 1” wide. A single shoot will have between 12 – 16 leaves. The male and female flower spikes are separate and very distinct. The light brown male flower forms at the top of the stem and quickly comes apart, leaving a bare stem. Below this is the thick, dark brown female flower, reminiscent of a cigar.

These female flowers last for many, many months before they disintegrate. At that point the wind carries away the innumerable (some say as many as 270,000 per flower spike), tiny seeds, with their soft downy hairs attached. While cattails will hybridize, true specimens of Typha latifolia can be distinguished from other cattails by looking at the flowers. In Typha latifolia, there is no space between the male and female flowers. Later, when the male flower has disintegrated, the remaining stem is coarse and gray, rather than smooth and green as it is in other cattail species.

Typha species are extremely vigorous and aggressive spreaders. They reproduce both vegetatively and sexually, and the means by which they have adapted are fascinating indeed. In sexual reproduction, the seed germinates in both the muddy sections of the shoreline and under water. What is interesting is that the submerged or oxygen-depleted sprouts grow far faster than plants in muddy or dry soil. This is because the plant has adapted to wetland conditions. In the early stages of growth, cattails rely on anaerobic respiration. Then, once the sprouts have emerged above the water, the plant switches to aerobic respiration.

Typha species have received great attention recently as concerns about pollution mount. This species is very important in restoration projects, flood protection projects, passive water treatment systems and wetlands constructed to treat human, agricultural or industrial wastes. These plants are particularly useful in the removal of excess levels of phosphorous from runoff water.

They also help reduce lead, zinc, copper and nickel. Most significantly, they are an excellent pioneer species; they are easy to establish and spread quickly to mitigate flooding, trap solid wastes and reduce pollution in very little time.

Habitat and Range: Growing from sea level to elevations of 7,000’ in USDA zones 2-11, Cattails are found throughout the world from the Arctic Circle to latitudes of 30ºS. On the Pacific Coast, they are found in similar habitats as bulrushes (Scirpus validus, S. acutus and S. microcarpus), although the latter inhabit deeper water. Canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea) and willows (Salix spp). likewise inhabit areas where cattails are found but they would be in dryer zones than cattails.

Typha do require a dry period in order to set seed. In fact, prolonged flooding will kill them. Stands of unhealthy Cattails indicate severe or extended periods of flooding where water levels exceeded a foot in depth. They are found in the shallow waters at the edges of lakes and rivers, as well as in freshwater marshes, ditches or water logged soils.

Ornamental Value: Cattails are beautiful year-round, remaining bright green through the driest spells. The flower stalks can be cut for dried flower arrangements and sprayed with lacquer (or even hairspray), they will last for many years provided they are harvested while they are still tight to the stem. As the seeds loosen they errupt in masses of downy tufts. Best to cut them before any indication of this appears. They also add a unique element to fresh flower bouquets.

Native Plant Gardening/Wildlife Habitat: Cattails provide excellent habitat to innumerable species of insects, fish, amphibians and birds. Red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, wrens and many other shorebirds and waterfowl utilize this plant for cover, nesting and food. A variety of insects and amphibians seek shelter and lay eggs in the foliage of Typha latifolia. Muskrats use the plant for their lodges and eat the roots (Delesalle, p.47, Pojar, p.338).

Historical/Cultural uses: Cattails have a vast number of uses both as food and as building materials. The guru of edible wild plants, Euel Gibbons claims that “[f]or the number of different kinds of food it produces there is no plant, wild or domesticated, which tops the common Cattail” (Gibbons, p. 55). All parts of this plant are edible: the rhizomes, young shoots, young stalks and pollen. Sprouts of cattails are eaten raw or cooked and are palatable until they grow to 2’, at which point they are stringy. Try them lightly steamed and tossed in butter or pureed with cream as an excellent substitute for asparagus. The male flower, when just developing buds and emerging from the sheath, can be peeled and boiled. The buds are then nibbled from the stem and the stem discarded. A touch of butter can never hurt either. Later, the pollen from male flower can be collected and mixed with flour for baking. The pollen adds nutrients as well as producing breads and pancakes with vibrant yellow hues.

The rhizomes can be collected throughout the winter quite easily by reaching into the muddy ground of the shoreline and pulling them apart. They can be steamed or boiled and the stringy outer fibers removed. Or cut in sections and allowed to dry, the rhizomes can be ground into flour. This flour is very nutritious, with more far more nutrients than corn, rice or wheat and the bonus of a high protein content. The enchanting Gene Logsdon suggests growing cattails commercially because they are such aggressive growers, they are so nutritious and they yield a phenomenal amount of food. He argues that one acre of cattails can produce 30 dry tons of flour, leaving ample rhizomes for the next year’s growth. In comparison, wheat offers an exceptional harvest at three tons per acre! (See Logsdon, pp.64-65)

Cattails are also incredibly useful in other ways. The soft down of the numerous seeds can be collected for use in stuffing toys, pillows or blankets, and was commonly used as padding in mattresses, life rafts and life preservers. Lastly, the stems are used in chair caning and basket weaving. Leaves should be gathered while green and allowed to dry in a shaded spot. Prior to use, they benefit from a quick soaking to prevent brittleness.

First Nations people used the Cattail extensively. Not only did they eat it but it was also one of their favored weaving materials. They made mats and baskets with it as well as a thick, strong rope made by braiding its leaves with the bark of Red Cedar roots. They applied the juice, squeezed from the stems, to wounds and covered them with the down, much like we use present-day gauze. Flower heads were burnt, as the smoke repelled insects. The soft down was used to cushion diapers and line cradles, as it was highly absorbent and easy to clean (Turner, pp.122-123).

Propagation Techniques: Cattails can be grown from seed and from rhizome divisions, the latter being far more successful and easy. Seeds are grown in pots that stand in an inch of water at all times. As soon as they sprout, the plant is transplanted to a larger pot and set in deeper water. Plants must not be allowed to get root-bound and must be watched. At the same time, the standing water level must continue to increase. In comparison, rhizome divisions are far simpler. Planted in 2-3” of soil in an area where water stands as much as 6” deep, the transplants will establish quickly with minimal fuss. This is best done in fall, to ensure adequate standing water from rains (remember Cattails need anaerobic conditions in their early stages).

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Thank you to the following references for their invaluable information:

Delesalle, Bruno in cooperation with Ducks Unlimited and Environment Canada. Understanding Wetlands: A Wetland Handbook for British Columbia’s Interior. BC, Canada: Ducks Unlimited Canada, 1998.

Gibbins, Euell with illustrations by M. Shroeder. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. New York: David McKay Company Inc., 1962.

Kozloff, Eugene. Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest: An Illustrated Guide to the Natural History of Western Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia. Washington: The University of Washington Press, 1976.

Logsdon, Gene. Getting Food From Water: A Guide to Backyard Aquaculture. Pennsylvania, Rodale Press, 1978.

Pojar, Jim and MacKinnon, Andy. Plants of Coastal British Columbia including Washington, Oregon and Alaska. Vancouver, BC: Lone Pine Publishing, 1994.

Turner, Nancy J. Plant Technology of First Peoples in British Columbia. Vancouver: University of British Columbia in collaboration with the Royal British Columbia Museum, 1998.

Fire Effects Information, USDA, Forest Services, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, Montana. http://www.fs.fed.us/database/feis.

Plants for a Future (September, 2001) http://www.comp.leeds.ac.uk/pfaf.

Rook Family Home Page, Copyright 2002 by Earl J.S. Rook. http://www.rook.org/earl/bwca/nature/aquatics/typhalat.html.

Golden Gate National Parks, San Francisco, California, Nurseries Department United http://www.nativeplantnetwork.org/network.

United States Department of Agriculture, Natural Resource Conservation Service (April, 2002) http://plants.usda.gov.

Contact:  star@chillirose.com ~ Copyright 2012 © Wallace W. Hansen ~ All rights reserved