Typha latifolia

Common Cattail

Broadleaf Cattail, Photo Courtesy James L. Reveal and USDA Plants Database
Broadleaf Cattail
Photo Courtesy James L. Reveal and USDA Plants Database

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Name:

  • Typha, from the Greek, tufh (typhe), "bulrush, cattail"
  • latifolia, from the Latin latus,"broad", and folius, "leaf"; hence, "broad leaf"
  • Common name from the width of the leaf relative to that of the other common, North American cattail, Typha angustifolia
  • Other common names include: Cattail, Broad-leaved Cattail, Soft Flag, and in the UK, Bulrush, Reed Mace, Great Reed Mace, Bredbladet Dunhammer (Dan), Laialehine Hundinui, Hundikurikas, Hunditubin, Purikas, Soetõlv, Laos, Tainad, Soomõõk, Turunui (Est), Leveäosmankäämi (Fin), Massette à larges feuilles (Fr), Cuigeal nam Ban-sìdh (Gaelic), Breitblättriger Rohrkolben (Ger), Breitt dunkjevle (Nor), Palka szerokolistna (Pol), Pálka širokolistá (Slovak), Bredkaveldun, Bredbladigt Kaveldun, Kaveldun (Swe), Grote Lisdodde (NL)

Taxonomy:

  • 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: T. latifolia, Common Cattail, T. angustifolia, Narrow-leaved Cattail, T. domingensis, Dominican Cattail
            • Genus Typha, the Cattails
  • Taxonomic Serial Number: 42326
  • Also known as Massula latifolia
  • Distribution of these species overlaps considerably in the contiguous US. Where Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia occur together, hybrids are common, especially in habitats with variable water levels. Typha latifolia x T. 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.

Description:

  • An erect, rhizomatous, semiaquatic or aquatic, perennial herb.
  • Leaves basal, erect, linear, flat, D-shaped in cross section; 1/3"-3/4" wide and 3'-10' tall; 12-16 leaves arising from each vegetative shoot. Pale grayish-green in color The linear leaves are thick, ribbon-like structures with a spongy cross-section exhibiting air channels. The leaves typically do not extend above the spike.
  • Stem erect, 5'-10' tall, 3/8"-3/4" diameter in middle, tapering to 1/8"-1/4" near flower structure.
  • Rhizomes stout, typically ¼"-1¼" in diameter and up to 27" in length, growing 3"-4" below the soil surface.
  • Flower structure a dense, dark brown, cylindrical spike on the end of a stout, 3'-10' stem. The staminate (male) portion is positioned above the pistillate (female) portion; they are continuous or slightly separated. Flowers May/June.
    • Male flower brown, minute, 3/16"-1/2" long, thickly clustered on a club-like spadix; anthers 1mm-3 mm long
    • Female flower tiny, 2mm-3mm long, when in flower, 10mm-15mm (3/8"-5/8") when in fruit. Female fruiting spike pale green when in flower, drying to brownish, later blackish brown or reddish brown, in fruit, often mottled with whitish patches of pistil-hair tips.
  • Fruit a tiny, tufted nutlet.
  • Seed minute, numerous

Identification:

  • Identifiable as a cattail by its tall, sword-shaped leaves and distinctive fruiting spikes.
  • Distinguished from the closely related Narrow Leaf Cattail (Typha angustifolia) by its broader leaves and its fruiting spikes showing no separation between the male and female sections.

Distribution:

  • Nearly worldwide; in North America, Central America, Great Britain, Eurasia, Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and Japan.
  • In North America in arctic, temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions from central Alaska and northwest Canada to Newfoundland, and south through every province, territory, and state to Mexico and Guatemala.

Habitat:

  • Almost anywhere soil remains wet, saturated, or flooded most of the growing season. Common habitats include 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. Tolerant of continuous inundation and seasonal drawdowns but generally restricted to areas where the water depth never exceeds about 2½'. Grows mostly in fresh water but also occurs in slightly brackish marshes.
  • Along water depth gradients, often grows upslope of bulrush or open water but downslope of Common Reed (Phragmites australis), Reed Canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea), and willows (Salix spp.).
  • 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.
  • Soils: 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. On logged Black Spruce (Picea mariana) lowlands, quickly invades exposed peat and water-filled depressions created by logging machinery. 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. Also occurs as a codominant in mixed stands with Bulrush (Scirpus acutus, S. californicus) and Maidencane (Panicum hemitomon).
  • A persistent emergent found in almost all our wetland plant communities from deep marshes to open bogs, growing on wet substrates and often in one to two feet or more of standing water. It spreads extensively by rhizomes so that an acre of cattail may consist of only a few individual plants. Broad-leaved cattail can also form floating mats. Cattail stands provide important food and cover for wildlife. For example, the rhizomes are eaten by geese and muskrats. Muskrats also use the foliage to construct their lodges, which in turn can provide resting and nesting sites for water birds. In some cases, cattails can form extensive monotypes that may be considered undesirable because they lack diversity.
  • The only species of cattail usually found in relatively undisturbed habitats.
  • Rhizomes are buried in the soil and often under water where they cannot be harmed by the heat of fire. When aboveground foliage is consumed by fire, new top-growth develops from surviving underground rhizomes.
  • 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.

Associates:

  • Herbs: Sweet Flag (Acorus americanus), Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor), Narrow Leaf Cattail (Typha angustifolia)
  • 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. Of little value as food or cover for ducks, however, and is considered an undesirable weed in marshes managed primarily for ducks.
    • As food, the seeds are too small to be an important source, but are eaten by Green Wing Teal, Semipalmated Sandpiper, Canada Goose, and Snow Goose.
    • As cover, 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.

History:

  • 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 roasted. The leaves were woven for matting and the soft down from ripe fruiting heads was used as padding and in diapers.

Uses:

  • Much use has been made of this common plant, including:
    • thatch for roofing, or woven into mats, chairs, hats
    • a source of fiber for rayon and a crude, greenish brown paper
    • torches and tinder; pollen used in making fireworks
    • stuffing pillows, insulation, crude floatation devices, wound dressing, and lining for diapers.
  • In recent years, has been proposed as a biomass crop for renewable energy.
  • Has shown a tolerance to high concentrations of lead, zinc, copper, and nickel. Has been employed in secondary waste water treatment schemes.
  • In the spring, the emerging plant can be eaten. Slightly later in the season, in late April or early May, the tender developing spike is also edible. After the flower spike is mature (after it extends above the leaves), it becomes tough and inedible. Many consider the young plant and its tender spike to be delicacies.

Reproduction:

  • Reproduces by seed and vegetatively by rhizomes
  • Vegetative reproduction occurs through an extensive rhizome system and is responsible for the maintenance and expansion of existing stands.
  • Sexual reproduction via seed dispersal and seedling establishment is responsible for invasion of new areas.
  • Seed production prolific; each spike may contain 117,000 to 268,000 tiny seeds. 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.
  • Germination: 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 temperatures of 77°-86°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.
  • Once established, a single seedling spreads rapidly by rhizomes.

Propagation:

  • By seed
    • surface sow in a pot and stand it in 1" of water.
    • pot up young seedlings as soon as possible, increasing water depth as the plants develop
    • plant out in summer
  • Division in spring most successful method
    • divide young shoots when about 14"-12" tall, making sure there is at least some root attached
    • plant out in permanent locations

Cultivation:

  • Hardy to USDA Zone 3 (average minimum annual temperature -40ºF)
  • Cultural Requirements
    • Sun or part shade
    • Soil - succeeds in acid and calcareous soils and requires a less organic-rich soil than Typha angustifolia in order to do well.
    • Water - boggy margins of ponds to shallow waters up to 6" deep
    • Fertilization unnecessary
  • Growth rate rapid, spreading freely at the roots when in a suitable site; 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. This species will often form an almost complete monoculture in boggy soil.
  • The species and a slower growing variety, Typha latifolia variegata (Variegated Broad Leaf Cattail) are available by mail order from specialty suppliers or at local nurseries
  • Very easily grown, but very invasive.
  • Provides excellent cover for wild fowl.

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Last updated on 26 February, 2004