Typha angustifolia

Narrow Leaf Cattail

Narrow Leaf Cattail, Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook
Narrow Leaf Cattail
Photo © by Earl J.S. Rook

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The natural history of the northwoods


  • Typha, from the Greek, tufh (typhe), "bulrush, cattail", perhaps from typhein, to smoke or to emit smoke, in allusion either to the use of the spikes for maintaining smoky fires or to the smoky brown color of the fruiting spikes
  • angustifolia, from the Latin, angustus, "narrow", and folius, "leaf"; hence, "narrow leaf"
  • Common Name, from the width of the leaf relative to that of the other common, North American cattail, Typha latifolia
  • Other common names include: Cattail, Narrow-leaved Cattail, and in the UK, Bulrush, Lesser Bulrush, Small Reed Mace, quenouille a feuilles etroites (Qué), Bodan (Gaelic), Palka waskolistna (Pol), Smalkaveldun, Smalbladigt Kaveldun (Swe), Smalt dunkjevle (Dan), Smalbladet Dunhammer (Nor), Kapeaosmankäämi (Fin), Schmalblättriger Rohrkolben (Ger), Kleine Lisdodde (NL), Pálka úzkolistá (Slovak)


  • Kingdom Plantae, the Plants
    • Division Magnoliophyta, the Angiosperms (flowering plants)
      • Class Liliopsida, the Monocotyledons
      • Subclass Commelinidae
        • Order Typhales, the Cattails
          • Family Typhaceae, the Cattails. In North America, a single genus with three species: Typha latifolia, Common Cattail, Typha angustifolia, Narrow Leaf Cattail, and Typha domingensis, Dominican Cattail
            • Genus Typha, the Cattails
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 42325
  • Also known as Typha angustifolia var. calumetensis, Typha angustifolia var. elongata
  • Distribution of our two species overlaps considerably in the contiguous US. Where they occur together, hybrids are common, especially in habitats with variable water levels. Typha latifolia x Typha angustifolia hybrids (Typha X glauca), commonly known as Hybrid or Glaucus Cattail, are especially common in the Midwest and may develop extensive pure stands by rhizomatous growth. Hybrids are almost always intermediate in form between the parent species.


  • An erect, rhizomatous, semiaquatic or aquatic, perennial herb.
  • Leaves erect, linear, flat, basal, very narrow, and flattened; ¼"-½" wide and 3'-6' tall; 12-16 leaves arising from each vegetative shoot.
  • Stems stout, erect, 3'-6'.
  • Rhizomes stout, produced at the leafbase, up to 27" in length and typically ¾"-1½" in diameter.
  • Flower structure a dense, fuzzy, cylindrical spike on the end of stem, with a distinct gap of 1"-3" of naked stem between the upper, male portion (staminate) and the lower, female (pistillate) portion. Both male and female sections are roughly the same length. Male flowers lighter brown; female flowers often green during bloom turning dark brown during seed maturation. Individual blossoms minute and closely packed on spike. Bloom May-June.
  • Fruits cigar-shaped and 2"-6" long, with soft, downy seeds.
  • Seed a tiny nutlet, about 1 mm long, with downy hairs underneath


  • Identifiable as a cattail by its tall, sword-shaped leaves and distinctive fruiting spikes.
  • Distinguished from the closely related Common Cattail (Typha latifolia) by:
    • narrower, deeper green leaves on a less robust plant
    • fruiting spikes showing clear separation between the male and female sections
    • leaves typically extending beyond the spike.


  • Nova Scotia south through parts of New England along the coast to southern Florida; in the Midwest south to southeastern Texas.
  • Scattered populations are found throughout Nebraska and Wyoming, parts of the Intermountain West, and along the Pacific Northwest coast into central California.
  • Common throughout most of Minnesota, but uncommon in the BWCA.


  • Almost anywhere soil remains wet, saturated, or flooded most of the growing season, including.wet meadows, marshes, fens, pond and lake margins, floating bog mats, seacoast estuaries, roadside ditches, irrigation canals, oxbow lakes, and backwater areas of rivers and streams. Tolerates continuous inundation, seasonal drawdowns, and brackish waters.
  • Where Common Cattail and Narrow Leaf Cattail are found together, they are frequently segregated by water depth, with Common Cattail found in shallow water and Narrow Leaf Cattail in deep water, usually more than 2½' deep.
  • Cattail stands produce enormous quantities of litter; established stands tend to grow on soils with high amounts of organic matter. May also grow on fine texture mineral soils, but usually with organic matter in the surface layers.
  • A dominant component of early successional stages in wetlands. It rapidly colonizes exposed wet mineral soils, as it produces an extremely high number of wind and water dispersed seeds. It is also an early successional species occupying the water's edge on floating bog mats. In some situations with constant water levels, maintains relatively stable communities. Forms dense, nearly single species communities in shallow, freshwater marshes and ponds.
  • Early to mid-seral species and a dominant in disturbed wetlands. In the absence of disturbance, dominates marshes in dense, single-species stands, out-competing other species.
  • Generally restricted to unstable environments, often with basic, calcareous, or somewhat salty soils. Cattails can grow on a wide gradient of substrate types. Wet pure sand, peat, clay and loamy soils have been documented under cattail stands.
  • Typha angustifolia is considered a pioneer in secondary succession of disturbed bogs. Presumably, an increase in the acidity of a bog would lower the pH and reduce the invasion of T. angustifolia.
  • The effects of fire vary with water depth and soil moisture. On flooded sites and on sites with exposed but saturated soils, fire consumes most or all of the aboveground growth, but underground rhizomes remain undamaged and plants survive. When soils become dry because of drought or marshland drainage, fires can burn deep into the organic layers, consuming the rhizomes and killing the plant.
  • Canada geese, herons, egrets, and other waterfowl use burned marsh areas for feeding and nesting.


  • Shrubs: kalmia (Kalmia spp.), spiraea (Spiraea spp.), blueberries (Vaccinium spp.), viburnum (Viburnum spp.)
  • Herbs: sedges (Carex spp.), bulrushes (Scirpus spp.), rushes (Juncus spp.), foxtail barley (Critestion jubatum), reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinaceae), oakleaf goosefoot (Chenopodium glaucum), curled dock (Rumex crispus), panicgrass (Panicum spp.), cottonsedge (Eriophorum spissum), chufa flatsedge (Cyperus esculentus)
  • Sweet Flag (Acorus americanus), Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor), Common Cattail (Typha latifolia)
  • Mammals: Rhizomes and basal portions an important food of Muskrat as well as an excellent hut building material. Deer sometimes use it for cover
  • Birds: Rhizomes and basal portions an important food of geese. For ducks, however, is of little value as food or cover and is considered an undesirable weed in marshes managed primarily for ducks. The seeds are too small to be an important bird food source, but are eaten by Green Wing Teal, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Canada Goose, and Snow Goose. The structure and density of stands affect their usefulness as waterfowl nesting cover. Breeding ducks rarely nest in dense stands that cover vast expanses of marsh, but are attracted to wetlands where open water and cattail cover are well interspersed in roughly equal proportions. Common cattail provides favored nesting sites for the red-winged blackbird, yellow-headed blackbird, and marsh wren.
  • Blackbirds use cattail for perches. Extensive monotypic stands of cattail are usually poor habitat for wildlife Narrow-leaved cattail provides important cover for muskrats and a variety of waterfowl. White-tailed deer use cattail for cover
  • Mined by caterpillars of the moths Arzama opbliqua and Nonagria oblonga. Aphids and Colandra pertinaux (the snout beetle) also feed on Typha leaves and stems. The cattail rhizomes provide food to mammals such as the muskrat. The grazing of muskrats may greatly influence cattail communities. A cycling population of muskrats may reach such a density so as to totally set back a cattail stand for the season. These "eat outs" are important to maintain open water in a balanced system. Muskrats utilize leaves and stems for houses and eat the rhizomes. Cattail fruits provide nesting material for terrestrial birds and dry stems may be used by aquatic birds.


  • Leaves and stems have been used around the world as bedding, thatching, and matting, and in the manufacture of baskets, boats and rafts, shoes, ropes, and paper.
  • Native Americans used as food. Rhizomes were dried and ground into flour or eaten as cooked vegetables; young stems were eaten raw or cooked; and immature fruiting spikes were eaten after roasting. The leaves were woven for matting and the soft down from ripe fruiting heads was used as padding and in diapers.


  • Most parts can be eaten. Many consider the young plant and its tender spike to be delicacies.
  • A good source of biomass, making an excellent addition to the compost heap or used as a source of fuel.
  • Although useful in wetland restoration, without control it will form dense stands that eventually outcompete other, more valuable wildlife food and cover species.


  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively by rhizomes
  • Sexual reproduction via seed dispersal is responsible for invasion of new areas.
    • Seed production prolific; each spike may contain 117,000 to 268,000 tinyseeds. At maturity, the spike bursts under dry conditions, releasing the fruits. Each fruit has bristly hairs that aid in wind dispersal. When the fruit comes in contact with water, the pericarp opens rapidly, releasing the seed, which then sinks. In wet weather the fruits often fall to the ground in dense mats.
    • Seeds capable of germination immediately upon shedding under favorable conditions, but require moist or wet substrates, warm temperatures, low oxygen concentrations, and long day/short night exposures for germination to occur. Highest germination rates (86%-89%) at 77º-86º F. Because of the relatively high temperature required for germination, seeds overwinter in northern latitudes, but not necessarily in southern latitudes. Light, temperature, and oxygen requirements for germination are best met in shallow water or on moist mudflats in vegetation-free areas. Within established stands, seedlings are practically nonexistent because existing vegetative cover greatly reduces light and temperature for germination. Leaves and stems may also produce allelopathic inhibitors.
  • Vegetative reproduction occurs through an extensive rhizome system and is responsible for the maintenance and expansion of existing stands.
  • Seeds are wind pollinated and require moisture, but not oxygen for germination. Laboratory studies have shown that seeds germinate best in water 1 inch deep, but can germinate in water as deep as 16". In the field seed germination usually occurs following exposure of mudflats. Narrow-leaved cattail was found in wetland seedbanks that had been drained for more than 70 years.
  • Leaves emerge in the spring, flowering begins early to mid-summer, and the greatest clonal growth occurs in the fall. Under good conditions, seeds germinate from May to September. Aerial shoot growth continues until first freeze when plants go dormant.


  • By seed
    • Collect seed immediately prior to ripening, clean, and store dry in cloth or paper bag.
    • Sow outdoors in fall, ¼"-½" deep, in constantly moist soil which is unlikely to flood.
    • Surface sow indoors, ¼"deep, in pot standing in an inch or so of water. Pot up seedlings as soon as possible and increase depth of water as they grow. Plant out in summer.
  • By division
    • Separate young shoots in spring when 6"-12" tall, making sure some root is attached.
    • Transplant to permanent location and water in.


  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Sun full; shade intolerant
    • Soil rich, pH 3.7-8.5
    • Water to 24"
    • Fertilization unnecessary but will improve growth
  • Growth rate rapid
  • Available by mail order from specialty suppliers or at local nurseries
  • A very invasive plant spreading freely at the roots when in a suitable site, it is not suitable for growing in small areas. Unless restrained by some means, such as a large bottomless container, the plant will soon completely take over a site and will grow into the pond, gradually filling it in.Will often form an almost complete monoculture in boggy soil.



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Last updated on 26 February, 2004