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What Time is it in Nature: Cattails

December 19, 2012

The Prairie Ridge ponds are home to many species of aquatic plants and animals.  One of the most recognizable of them all is the cattail (Typha sp.).

cattails in summer and winter

Cattails are large emergent aquatic plants, which means they are rooted in the soil in shallow areas, but extend above the water line.  Plants are quite stiff and vary in height from 3-10 feet.  During their growing season, cattails also have long, flat, and bright green leaves with veins that extend along the entire length of the leaf blade.  The plants fade to dry brown stalks at the end of the season.  The flower is made up of two parts.  The cylindrical female flower sits lower on the stalk and changes from green to a deep brown as it matures.  In the fall, this part will disintegrate and release 150,000 or more seeds onto the wind.  The male flower is bright yellow and sits above the female flower on the stalk.  A small gap separates the two flower parts, and the male flower withers soon after the pollen is released.

Cattails spread very quickly as they produce many thousands of seeds that are carried by the wind to new bodies of water.  Once they become established, they spread via rhizomes that send up new shoots.  If they are left alone in nutrient-rich waters, they can easily become the dominant plant species and push out other native species.  Because it spreads to new habitats so easily and can become weedy under the right conditions, cattails are considered highly invasive species in many countries in the world.  In Australia and Hawaii, cattails are even classified as noxious weeds and are tightly regulated.

Cattails are important to a wide variety of wildlife.  Many aquatic insects live on the plants and several species rely on the algae that grows on cattails for food.  Some insects even lay their eggs in cattails to take advantage of the air spaces that run the length of the plant stems.  Fish nurseries often form in cattail stands, as the fish fry (baby fish) are well protected from larger predatory fish among the plants.  Wading birds can often be found hunting among the plants as well.

Humans have historically used cattails as food, but the practice is less common now than it has been in the past.  In modern times, cattails are more commonly used to solve water quality problems as they absorb toxins and pollutants from the water.  In fact, wastewater treatment plants are starting to embrace constructed wetlands as a form of water treatment and typically rely on cattails to do most of the dirty work.

The Prairie Ridge ponds are home to many cattails.  You can often see wading birds, frogs, turtles, insects, and Red-winged Blackbirds amongst them, so why not make a trip out to see what you can see among our cattail stands?

What Time is it in Nature is a weekly feature highlighting the current plants, animals, and other wildlife at the Musuem’s public outdoor facility, Prairie Ridge Ecostation. Find out more about the natural happenings at Prairie Ridge at our What Time is it in Nature Archive!

(Photos by Chris Goforth)

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