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.
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.