Common names: broad-leaved cattail, reedmace, cat o’nine tails, bulrush
Scientific name: Typha latifolia
Plant family: Typhaceae
Description: Broad-leaved cattail is a semiaquatic or marsh perennial. Leavesare alternate, sheathing at the base, and 1-2 cm wide. They are long, flat, and narrow and have a grayish-green color. Flowers are tiny and numerous in a terminal cylindrical spike. The cylindrical spike is 15-20 cm long, 1-3 cm thick, and dark brown. The lower portion of the spike is comprised of female flowers while the upper portion is all male. Fruit is a tiny ellipsoidal nutlet about 1mm long with long slender hairs at the base. It is designed to float in water. The overall plant is 1-3 meters tall. Cattail reproduces through seed production and rhizome activity.
Habitat and range: Typha latifolia grows in marshes and semi-aquatic environments such as ponds, lakeshores, and wet ditches. It thrives in slow-flowing or quiet water. Broad-leaved cattail is found in all 50 U.S. states and all Canadian provinces except Nunavut. It is commonly found from low to middle elevations.
Historical and contemporary uses: All parts of this plant are edible if they are gathered at the appropriate stage of development. Young shoots are cut from the plant in the spring when they are 4-16 inches long. While they are raw, these shoots have a delicate cucumber flavor, and a crispy asparagus-like texture. When the shoots are steamed, they taste like cabbage. The base of the stem can be cut and boiled or roasted like potatoes. Young flower stalks, once removed from their sheath, can be boiled or steamed just like corn.2 Cattail pollen is used as a substitute for flours and when added to a dish it turns it a bright yellow color. The rhizomes have a sweet flavor and can be eaten raw or cooked. They contain a high amount of starch (30-40%).
The Klamath and Modoc of Northern California and Southern Oregon use the leaves of this plant to weave flexible baskets as well as mats of varying sizes (used for sleeping, sitting, working, covering doorways, and for shade, among many other uses). The Cahilla of Southern California use cattail stalks for matting, bedding material, and ceremonial bundles. Some tribes use the leaves and sheath as caulking materials to seal up minor joints. The Apache of the Southwestern U.S. use cattail pollen in female puberty ceremonies. The fluff or down (from the flowers) can be used as tinder, bedding, insulation, and for lining baby cradleboards. Cattails have also been used to construct boats. Stems are bound together using a plied cattail rope and since there is an air pocket inside the stem, they provide buoyancy.
Medicinally, cattails have been used to treat wounds of all sorts and to soothe pain. Between young leaves, towards the base of the plant, there is a jelly of sorts. This jelly is either applied directly to wounds or mixed into a poultice. The rhizomes can be ground up and used for the same purpose.
Note: Broad-leaved cattail can often be confused with members of the iris family (such as the Western Blue Flag iris). Once the plants have reached maturity, they are easily distinguishable.