Euell Gibbons, the 1960’s author of guides to edible wild plants, famously referred to cat-tails as the “supermarket of the swamp.”
For centuries, various parts of this ubiquitous marsh plant have been valued as a year-round food source. Young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Immature flower spikes can be enjoyed like corn on the cob. The pollen works as a thickener or flour substitute, and even the starchy rhizomes (creeping, underground stems) can be dried and prepared into flour.
These days, most of us don’t regularly cook up cat-tails for dinner. But these common plants remain a familiar feature of wetlands across the country. Worldwide there are some 30 kinds of cat-tails (Typha); three species occur in North America, of which two are native. They’re easy to recognize by their sword-like green leaves and tall, club-shaped stalks that are green at first and eventually turn brown in the fall.
When it’s in bloom, a cat-tail stalk comprises dense clusters of minuscule flowers. The “male” flowers are packed together in a thin, pointed spike at the top of the stem. The “female” flowers are in a thicker, cigar-shaped spike on the same stem, not far below them. As the male flowers mature, they release clouds of powdery, yellow pollen. Soon they wither away.
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But the female flower spike morphs into a slowly disintegrating, cottony mass of tiny dry fruits, each containing a single seed and equipped with hairs that aid dispersal by the wind. Cat-tails also spread via their rhizomes, sometimes forming impenetrable thickets and crowding out other vegetation. In such situations, they may be considered invasive weeds.
But a cat-tail marsh can also be an invaluable resource for wildlife. Fish, frogs, salamanders, and other animals depend on cat-tails for cover and as habitat for feeding and reproducing. Red-winged Blackbirds and many other birds establish territories and build nests within cat-tail stands, and muskrats feast on the rhizomes.
Recently, cat-tail marshes are also being used to absorb water and soil contaminants and to monitor local levels of water pollution.