There are two Cattails in the Garden marsh - Common Cattail or Broadleaf Cattail, T. latifolia L., and Narrow-leaved Cattail, T. angustifolia L.
Stems: Stems of both species are erect and range from 3 to 9 feet high. Just below the inflorescence the stem of T. latifolia is 3 to 7 mm thick whereas T. angustifolia is 2 to 3 mm thick. The middle stem section of T. latifolia is 1 - 2 cm thick whereas that of T. angustifolia is only 5 - 12 mm thick.
Leaves: T. latifolia has almost flat strap-like leaves up to an inch wide that are bluish-green to grayish-green. There are mucilage glands at sheath-blade transition that are obscure and colorless but are absent from sheath center and blade. T. angustifolia has narrower leaves of up to 1/2 inch wide, rounded and thicker on the back side and the tops of leaf sheaths also have membranous auricles; there are mucilage glands at sheath-blade transition but they are brown not colorless; they are also absent from the blade and usually from sheath center. Leaves on both species attach near the base of the stem and overlap each other at the attachment points. On both species, in the inflorescence, leaves reduce to scales.
Inflorescence: In general, cattails have unisexual flowers, separated by sex, in very dense cylindrical spikes - on the upper part of the spike are the staminate flowers which disappear during the summer leaving a denuded stem. The lower part are the pistillate flowers which develop into what we usually see as the "cattail." On T. latifolia, the separate unisexual flower divisions touch each each whereas on T. angustifolia there is a separation between the two flower sections. If T. latifolia has hybridized, there may be a small separation between the sexes also.
Flowers: In T. latifolia staminate flower spikes have scales covering the flowers that are colorless to straw-colored; flowers are 5 - 12 mm long, anthers 1 - 3 mm long. Pistillate spikes are pale green in flower, then brown and later ever darker brown to reddish brown; pistillate flowers lack small bracts (bracteoles), are 2 -3 mm in flower but 10 - 15 mm in fruit with colorless hair tips of the pistil, which appear whitish sometimes in the mass of flowers.
In T. angustifolia, staminate scales are variable in color, straw-color to medium brown; flowers are shorter, 4 to 6 mm with anthers 1.5 to 2 mm. Pistillate spikes are a darkish brown in all stages with whitish stigmas to the flowers, which are 2 mm in flower, but 5 - 7 mm in fruit. Pistillate flowers have bracteoles but are so small magnification is needed to see them. Pistil hair tips are medium brown.
Seed: Seeds are dry straw-colored and surrounded by the pistillate hair which allows the seed dispersion by the wind.
Invasive: T. angustifolia was less common away from coastal areas but is much more aggressive and has become quite an invasive pest in the mid-continent area where it out-competes T. latifolia, especially if an area has been disturbed. In many marshes around the Mpls/St. Paul metro area either T. angustifolia is predominant or a hybrid between the two species, known as Typha x glauca Godr. (T. angustifolia x latifolia) is predominant. In fact the U of M Herbarium states that in the 20 counties where it has been reported, it is more widespread and dominates the other two species to such an extent that habitat for waterfowl is being destroyed. To counter the invasion the Minnesota DNR since 2017 has been using targeted aerial spraying with herbicide to eliminate some of the infestations. Spraying makes use of a very low flying helicopter (10 to 20 feet up) using gps coordinates to get the exact spots.
The hybrid is identified by tiny bracteoles on the pistillate flowers just like T. angustifolia but unlike it mucilage glands are absent from the leaf blade. After flowering the pistillate spikes are medium to dark brown, not orange brown which indicates a different hybrid - Typha domingensis x T. latifolia.
Habitat: Both species grow in ditches and marshes that have wet soils. Shallow water and muddy soil is tolerated. The roots are rhizomes which allow the plants to spread, forming colonies. Fluctuating water levels inhibit spreading.
Names: The genus name Typha is the Greek name for the cattail. Latifolia refers in Latin to broad or wide leaves. Angustifolia is also from the Latin for "narrow leaf." The author name for the plant classification of both species - 'L.' - refers to Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778), Swedish botanist and the developer of the binomial nomenclature of modern taxonomy.
Above: 1st photo - Common Cattail, T. latifolia L. 2nd photo - Narrow-leaved Cattail, T. angustifolia L. 3rd photo - Seed heads the survive the winter will disburse seeds in the Spring.
Below: 1st photo - Common Cattail just past the flowering stage. 2nd photo - Leaves on both species attach near the base of the stem and overlap each other at the attachment points.
Below - 1st photo - Leaf width: This common leaf (left) is 11/16 inch wide and the narrow leaf (right) is 5/16 inch wide - a proportion that is typical. 2nd photo- Leaf Cross-section: Narrow-leaved Cattail (bottom in photo) has a more rounded cross-section.
Below: A comparison of stem diameter. Just below the inflorescence the stem of T. latifolia is 3 to 7 mm thick whereas T. angustifolia is 2 to 3 mm thick.
Below: 1st photo - Close view of the staminate (male) flowers above the pistillate flowers of Common Cattail, which does not have a gap between the two flower sections. 2nd photo - The many fine seeds of Narrow-leaf Cattail disbursing in the Spring.
Notes: Common Cattail, T. latifolia is indigenous to the Garden area. Eloise Butler catalogued it on May 25, 1907. It is native to most counties in Minnesota except for a few in the southern half of the state. It is distributed all across North America. Narrow-leaved Cattail, T. angustifolia is not native to Minnesota or the United States but is a native of Canada. Eloise Butler introduced the plant to the Garden on April 26, 1913 and again on May 18, 1913 with plants sourced from Kelsey's Nursery in North Carolina. More were planted in 1922, '27, and '31. Having been introduced to Minnesota long ago, it is found in many counties in Minnesota all across the state, but in fewer than T. latifolia; it is found in the Metro Area counties except Carver and Scott, and in some marshes, it predominates and is invasive. Cattails have had many practical uses over time for both food and plant material. Densmore (Ref. #5) reports its use among the Chippewa of Minnesota for making mats and baskets.
Eloise Butler wrote on Cattails: "Who pictures a swamp without the familiar cattails and red-winged blackbirds flying in and out piping their cheerful notes? In an aesthetic craze a few years ago, the cattails, or flags, were the popular decoration of the home, filling large jardineres or embroidered or painted on screens and lambrequins. Though of inherent decorative value they have fallen into “innocuous desuetude” by reason of overuse. It is a warning to “avoid the obvious.” Individuality, not too pronounced or extreme, should be expressed. Why, for instance, because a neighbor has a beautiful plant on his premises should every one in the vicinity straightway fill his grounds with the same in monotonous reiteration? Among the hosts of ornamental plants may not something else be selected besides hydrangea, scarlet rambler, canna and golden glow to prevent satiety? If a plant is “all the rage.” it is the very best reason why one should fall out of line and imitate nature in her endless variety.
The flower cluster of the cattail is made up of innumerable blossoms of two sorts, without nectar, fragrance or bright color, because they are pollinated by the wind. The slender spike at the top bears the pollen-producing flowers. These after doing their work wither sway and disappear, while the flowers of the stouter body below ripen into tiny, seed-like fruits that are converted by tufts of fine hairs into aeroplanes that will take a long flight through the air before they settle down to propagate new plants. Cattails are still in fashion with children, who carefully store them for a gala time, when they are dipped in kerosene to use for torches in Halloween processions." Published in the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune, July 16, 1911.
Edwin Way Teale wrote of collecting the yellow pollen: Mixed with batter, it will contribute to a special delicacy of this time of year - cattail pollen pancakes. Served with maple syrup, they possess a delicate haunting flavor vaguely suggesting corn fritters. from A Walk Through the Year.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Identification booklet for most of the flowering forbs and small flowering shrubs of the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden. Details Here.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"