Facts and folklore about marshy cattails

  • Cattail marshes don't always hold water. During summers with severe drought, this marsh could be easily walked across.

    Cattail marshes don't always hold water. During summers with severe drought, this marsh could be easily walked across. Courtesy of Lara Sviatko

 
By Mark Spreyer
Stillman Nature Center
Posted10/2/2020 6:00 AM

When it comes to cattails, I thought I had the subject pretty well covered.

I had led many field trips to cattail marshes and conducted wetland seminars on the subject. And yet, totally by accident, I recently discovered something new (to me) to share with you.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

First, we'll start with the cattail basics.

Early settlers and Native Americans would ground the cattails' starchy rootstalks, like this one, to make flour.
Early settlers and Native Americans would ground the cattails' starchy rootstalks, like this one, to make flour. - Courtesy of Cassie Cunnif

Although this may seem obvious, cattails are aquatic. Unlike submerged plants, like you might see in an aquarium, cattails live both above and below the water. Of course, as the water level changes, the amount of the plant underwater also changes.

In any event, the bulk of the cattails emerge from the water and, not surprisingly, they are cataloged as one of the "emergents." Others in this group include bulrushes and wild irises.

Now you may wonder how these plants stay healthy standing in water. After all, many plants suffer if they are overwatered. Interestingly, over half the space inside a cattail leaf is empty. This is possible due to a structural tissue called aerenchyma. The large spaces within the aerenchyma facilitates the circulation of air within the plant. It also allows the plants to easily bend, rather than break, on windy days.

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Cattails in Illinois

In northern Illinois, two species of cattail can be seen -- broad-leaved, or common cattail, (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia). Besides the differing width of their leaves, the broad-leaved cattail lacks a gap between the uppermost male flower head and the female section below. With narrow-leaved cattail, there is a distinct gap between the male and female flowers.

Sounds easy to separate the two, doesn't it? Not so fast. The male flowers are often not visible, as they do not persist as long as the female "cat's tail." Also, hybrids between the species can throw a wrench in the works.

While narrow-leaved cattail reaches a height of six feet and common cattail can approach nine feet in height, the hybrid is often taller than either of the parents. Finally, the hybrid is sterile. This doesn't mean it can't spread, however.

In the fall, fluffy cattail seeds are spread by the wind. Might this phenomenon have reminded some ancient viewers of smoke?
In the fall, fluffy cattail seeds are spread by the wind. Might this phenomenon have reminded some ancient viewers of smoke? - Courtesy of Lara Sviatko
                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Cattails grow underground horizontal stems called rhizomes. New shoots form along the rhizomes in fall. The following spring, the shoots sprout forth and the colony of cattails expand.

While the ranges of both species overlap considerably, each species has its preferences.

Narrow-leaved cattail tolerates pollution and excessive nutrients such as fertilizer runoff. It will grow in highly alkaline soils and in water that is three feet deep or more. Common cattail grows in water depths of six inches to two feet. It is less tolerant of pollution than narrow-leaved cattail, but more tolerant of soil acidity.

Regardless of the species, having a collar of cattails ringing a pond or lake is healthy for both the land and the water. A thick network of cattail stems and roots resists wind and wave action. By blocking waves, cattails can prevent shoreline erosion.

This same dense tangle of plants catches sediment in runoff from the land. Also, research suggests cattails have some ability to remove heavy metals from water. In other words, cattails act as a natural filter and water purifier.

While cleaning the water, cattails provide a home for wildlife. The most common cattail crunchers are muskrats. Unlike beavers, which chew on woody plants, muskrats prefer the stems and roots of aquatic vegetation like cattails.

Note the large pores in this cattail stem. This tissue is known as aerenchyma, and helps air circulate through the plant.
Note the large pores in this cattail stem. This tissue is known as aerenchyma, and helps air circulate through the plant. - Courtesy of Cassie Cunnif

In the spring, the cattail marsh is home to one of my favorite bird calls. This descending whinny, as well as a series of bell-like whistles, are made by the sora. The sora is a type of rail, a slender (as in "skinny as rail") wading bird that returns to the marsh in warm weather and lives among the cattails.

Other birds to be seen in the marsh include red-winged and yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, pied-billed grebes, and swamp sparrows.

Sometimes birds are observed "eating" from cattail spikes. In fact, they could well be feeding on something else that is eating the spikes. For example, Henry's marsh moth and -- I love this name -- the shy cosmet, also a moth, love to munch on cattails.

Cattails in folklore

What about mythological marsh creatures? This brings me to my recent discovery.

I was working on this column about cattails (Typha) while listening to a story about the abundance of tropical storms this year. Near the eastern U.S., we call them hurricanes. In the Indian Ocean, they are known as typhoons. Then the word similarity hit me, typhoons and Typha: connection or coincidence? The answer is connection. I found the answer thoroughly explored in a scholarly article by ethnobotanist Daniel F. Austin.

There are two possible ancient Greek words that come into play. Typhos, which means marshes (that's obvious), and typhein, which means to smoke. Some argue that smoke applies to the smoky-brown color of the seeds, especially when the seeds are floating in the air. Cattails were also burned to maintain smoky fires.

Looking into Greek mythology we find Typhon, a serpent like dragon with a hundred fire-breathing heads. He is associated with water, which includes causing rain and making springs.

Daniel Austin summarizes: "The stories of dragons and cattails are variants on the same theme that date back to the rise of Eurasian and Asian cultures. Because the underworld dragons are associated with water, and Typha may be the most frequent plant in the wetlands, all stories implicate dragons, water, and cattails as being connected."

Typhon is also known as the father of the winds. Hence, the typhoon connection.

Keep in mind that the Greeks should not get all the credit. There are similar sounding words for "big wind" in Mandarin, Hindi, Persian, and Arabic.

OK, let's get back to cattail marshes, in particular the marsh here at Stillman Nature Center. I especially like watching for wildlife in the marsh during the winter months when the water is frozen. Of course, every season is good for marsh viewing. Over the decades, I have seen everything from pheasants and foxes to cranes and coyotes. Often, I only see cattails bending in the breeze. Now, however, I'll be keeping my eyes open for a multi-headed dragon. As soon as I see one, you'll be the first to know.

• Mark Spreyer is the executive director of the Stillman Nature Center in Barrington. Send comments and questions to him at stillnc@wildblue.net.

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