Cattails, also known as bulrushes, “Tule” in Spanish, or “Corndog Grass” to some (I like to call them that once in a while), are important plants of freshwater wetlands. Cattails most frequently grow along the edges of ponds and in shallow water and provide a number of benefits to the environment, wildlife, and historically also to humans, but can spread with force and can very well eventually take over a wetland resulting in lower species diversity and water flow. Due to their sometimes invasive nature, and depending on the setting, cattail populations can become problematic and require management from time to time. Such is the case at the SPI Birding and Nature Center and many other city, state, and federal parks with artificially constructed wetlands. Careful and regular cattail management can improve overall pond health and biodiversity, wildlife viewing opportunities, and can serve as a chance to also do maintenance or repairs on any water flow infrastructures that might need it, which in turn can also help improve the habitat. Some cattail management techniques can be arduous operations that rely on heavy mechanical means to thin out the thick stands. Cattail maintenance of the SPIBNC freshwater ponds is a bit overdue and after much work and mitigation, plans have been laid out and maintenance work is ready to start very soon.
Cattails are plants in the genus Typha, that is comprised of thirty species worldwide with our local native species being Typha domingensis. They have long grass-like leaves that can reach to be eight feet tall and are used by marsh dwelling birds like Red-winged Blackbirds, Least Bitterns, and Common Gallinules for nesting material. Cattails have separate male and female inflorescences on the same long stem, the female inflorescence is made up of tiny flowers that create a tight spike giving it the corn dog appearance that makes the plant easy to recognize. The male inflorescence is positioned above the female spike and quickly withers off once its pollen is shed. Once fertilized, the female spike will ripen into a fluffy seed head that will eventually crumble, leaving the cottony down and the tiny seeds attached to it to sail off in the wind. Cattail down is used by birds as insulating nesting material and humans have historically also used it similarly to insulate shoes and baby cradleboards. Cattails also spread through rhizomes, which are underground stems that can create extensive and dense mats. Because of this, cattails are excellent in preventing erosion, produce dense shelter for all types of wildlife, and help filter run-off pollutants, but can also make them difficult to control as they spread at a fast rate outcompeting other plants. When not growing in polluted conditions, these starchy, nutrient rich, rhizomes are edible and were once an important food source for Native Americans when other food was hard to find. Cattails even have medicinal value and have been used to treat intestinal illnesses and burns.
Cattails are species with both, advantages and disadvantages, but with cautious and mindful management they can benefit habitat, wildlife, and wildlife viewers. As operations get underway and the heavy machinery starts to do work, the situation could initially look a little grim. We at the SPI BNC want to kindly ask our visitors for a little patience and for them not to worry. Everything will be done mindfully and the habitat will spring right back up in no time to be better enjoyed by both wildlife and nature lovers.