Where there are cattails, there is sure to be freshwater nearby. The plants, found in marshes, near ponds, along stream banks and in other damp places throughout the world, will not grow in saltwater habitats.
And where there are cattails, there also is a source of food. During the fall and winter, the plant’s starchy rhizomes that grow just beneath the soil can be peeled and cooked like potatoes. They also can be dried and pounded into a flour. Their steamed dormant sprouts are called Russian asparagus.
In the spring, the plant’s young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Its yellowish, immature flower spikes can be boiled and eaten like small ears of corn.
The cattail’s swordlike leaves, which are not edible, are woven into mats and baskets.
Cattails produce a fluffy white fruit that can be stuffed into pillows.
There are a dozen species of cattails. Four are found in the United States. The most common in the Southland is Typha latifolia .
Cattails grow up to 10 feet tall. Their most distinctive characteristic is their dense, velvety brown flower spikes, which grow atop a stout stalk and become darker as the plant matures.
The flower spikes are made up of hundreds of closely packed petal-less flowers, which appear in late summer. They are 6 to 23 inches long and about an inch wide.