Pandemics, politics, protests, and then there’s ponds. Making it a point each day to pass a certain pond to pause and reflect seems to drive all negativity from the other P-words away. The view there changes daily. The color of the water, the wildlife it brings, and the beautiful plants growing in and around its perimeter are new with each visit. This may be a strange way of introducing you to one certain swordlike perennial plant that can be found there. But I have to set the scene. Right? It’s the cattail. Typha latifolia, also known as bulrush, reedmace, and corndog grass, is spread by rhizomes underwater and is not actually a true grass. Each of the tall slender leaves wraps around the main stem underwater or under the soil. They too spread from the rhizomes.

Found in ponds or marshes, it’s considered an herbal plant because every part is beneficial to a variety of species, including humans. Native Americans were adept at using the cattail. It is a very reliable food source as all parts, from the roots to the flowerheads, are edible and very nutritious. The roots can be boiled, roasted as a coffee substitute, or dried to make flour. Think cattail pancakes, biscuits or muffins. If the roots are used, be mindful that the whole cattail root system acts as a unique underwater filtration system. So if the body of water could possibly be polluted, the roots will have absorbed some of the pollutants. The starchy center of the stalks and the flowerheads also can be roasted for a nutty-tasting snack.

This plant has been used for mats, baskets, rush bottom furniture, clothing, tinder, torches, arrow shafts, cordage, and shelter. The downy seeds or “fluff,” which you will see if you tear one apart, have been used in absorbing diaper material, used to stuff pillows, mattresses, and even life jackets during World War ll. Industrially, parts of this plant were distilled in ethyl alcohol to make an inexpensive antifreeze and also a solvent.

The medicinal uses are many. It’s actually one of the best survival plants. Poultices can be made from the bruised roots and applied to wounds, burns, stings, and bruises. Burned cattail ash can be used as an antiseptic or styptic. A honey-like material found at the base of the plant is used for toothaches. The young flowers have been used for diarrhea. One brown cattail is made up of over 250,000 seeds. Together, the dispersed seeds and cattail rhizomes can actually make an “island,” or soil-like platform, to ensure reproduction.

Cattails are especially beautiful this time of year. The brown, fuzzy, cigar-like stalks, actually the female flowers, are used in many floral arrangements. The female flower is actually green before pollination and can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob or made into refrigerator pickles. Having the male and female flowers on the same plant, this monocot is considered a valuable asset to the environment. Some consider it a common weed and want it eradicated. Next time, look closely at this remarkable plant. See the nests of various waterfowl, the hovering butterflies and different insects, the birds perched atop its tall stalks, the shelter it provides tiny fish, and consider erosion control. Then decide. Enjoy the beauty and value of cattails in your holiday decorations.


By Cheryl Balster