© Dave Spier
Supermarket, water purifier and wildlife habitat -- take your pick. The cattail is one of nature's most useful and versatile plants. My preference is its edibility. In early summer, the flower spikes produce bright yellow pollen that can be collected in a bag by shaking the heads. After sifting, the protein-rich pollen can be added to wheat flour to make a 50-50 mix. If you're going to store it, thoroughly dry it first. Pollen can also be mixed into pancake batter. Starting at the end of summer, look for horn-shaped sprouts growing on the ends of rootstocks. These can be tossed in a salad or boiled and buttered. They're available until the ground freezes. The starchy core can be used like a potato. During cold weather, the rootstocks become starch-filled as they store food for the long winter. To produce a white flour, wash, peel and then crush the core in cold water. Remove the fibers, allow the starch to settle, pour off the water and dry thoroughly. In early spring, young shoots can be peeled and used like asparagus. Immature flower spikes can be boiled and buttered like corn on the cob.
Because the roots are rich in starch, they were eaten by the Cossacks of Russia. The name carried to England where they are eaten as "Cossack asparagus." On the Pacific coast, cattails are called "Tule-reeds." Sometimes they are mislabeled bulrushes, but that term is properly reserved for a group of sedges which are distant relatives.
Not interested in eating cattails? Then how about water pollution removal? Man-made wetlands containing cattails and other aquatic plants are used to naturally purify sewage water. These systems work best in the South because of the climate, but smaller-scale operations contained in greenhouses work in New York. Some of the research was pioneered at Cornell many years ago. The advantages are low cost and high efficiency. By the time the water reaches the end of the artificial marsh, it's clear and full of macroinvertebrates (tiny animals with external shells). Tiny crustaceans called copepods are indicators of very clean water. Natural marshes continually clean water on a large scale from ice-out to ice-up. Bacteria on the plant roots aid in the process by consuming ammonia, nitrogen, and phosphorus and then breaking down industrial chemicals, detergents, and pesticides into simpler compounds that can be absorbed by the plants.
Many of those artificial outdoor water treatment systems become defacto wildlife refuges and even recreation areas because there are no objectionable odors. Birders are particularly interested in the ducks, swallows, redwings and herons that visit the marshes. But, if you're down South, just watch out for the alligator in the next pond...
It's important to preserve our remaining wetlands and create new ones to replace what's been lost. These low areas store runoff from storms, then filter the water to make it cleaner and recharge underground aquifers. On the surface, they are prime wildlife habitat. For example, muskrats are intricately tied to cattails for food and building materials. Many bird species are adapted to nesting in cattail marshes. Turtles and frogs add to the this wildlife variety. Snow Geese eat the underground stems and roots. Blue and yellow species of iris, purple Pickerelweed and white arrowhead flowers combine to create a garden effect. Red Cardinal Flower and its close relative, blue lobelia, plus pink Swamp Milkweed and yellow Marsh Marigold will grow around the edges. Beware of one problem plant: the invasive Phragmites, or tall reed, which is a dense, aggressive grass that crowds out cattails and reduces the value of wetlands as wildlife habitat.
At one time there were two distinct species of cattails, the Common or Broad-leaved Cattail (Typha latifolia) and the Narrow-leaved Cattail (Typha angustifolia), but now some cattails are hybrids of these two. This is particularly true in the Finger Lakes region where the dominant form, called the "blue cattail," has intermediate-width leaves.
What’s your opinion of cattail marshes? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org If you visit the Montezuma Audubon Center just north of Savannah, NY (in southeastern Wayne County), walk to the small education ponds just south of the building, or hike to the western impoundments and investigate the plants and animals growing in the cattail marshes around the perimeters. If you're particularly interested in wetland birds, check out the new website for the Montezuma Birding Trail.