Scientific name: Scirpus tabernaemontanii (Scirpus lacustris ssp. Validus)
Native American names: Tekwtan (Okanagan-Colville)
Plant family: Cyperaceae
Description: Scirpus tabernaemontanii is a nonleafy, round-stemmed, perennial bulrush that usually grows in large colonies. Stems are round, olive-gray-green, up to 3 meters, larger toward the lower end and gradually tapering to the top. Pithy, yet tough, the stems are easily crushed between the fingers. Leaves are few, mostly at the base of the stem. Flower spikelets are compact, shiny, greyish-brown, less than 1 cm long, in a branched, terminal cluster. They bloom in June through August. Fruits are achenes, egg-shaped, nut-like, pointy tipped, 2 mm long, and concealed by spirally arranged scales.
Habitat and range: Scirpus tabernaemontanii is widespread throughout North America. It is found in emergent marshes and on the muddy shores of lakes and streams, especially in coastal areas, because it is tolerant of both alkali and salt.
Historical and contemporary uses: Tule is an important plant to many indigenous Pacific Northwest tribes including the Coast and Interior Salish, the Nuu-chahnulth, the Kwakwaka’wakw, the Carrier, the Ktunaxa, the Klamath and the Modoc. Tule has been used to make multiple and varied items such as mats, baskets, sandals, mattresses, cutting boards, boats and duck decoys.
The tule stems, normally harvested in late summer and early fall, were traditionally gathered by dugout canoe, or by foot along the shoreline, depending on the depth of the water5. When used for making mats, the tule stems are dried in the sun, cut into equal lengths, laid on the ground alternating tops and bottoms, then sewn into large mats with a strong fiber such as Indian hemp or stinging nettle twine.
Among Pacific Northwest tribes, the largest mats were typically used for the roofs and walls of temporary shelters, summer dwellings and teepees, and as insulation for the walls of winter houses. Medium sized mats were used as door covers, rugs, mattresses, wind breaks and for drying berries and for cutting and drying meat and fish. Smaller mats were used for covering windows, for seats at home or in canoes, and as placemats for eating on. Sometimes they were stacked for additional cushion and comfort.When used for teepees, the mats are woven very tightly. Air spaces can be seen through them in dry weather, but when it rains, the tule expands, and forms a waterproof barrier against the rain. Tule mats are light, have exceptional insulating qualities, and are easy to roll up and carry.