Fall is undoubtedly my favorite season at the Arboretum, when goldenrod gleams in the meadow and acorns are thick on the woodland paths. It’s also the time when the flowerhead of one of my favorite native plants, the cattail, turns its characteristic brown, ready to send parachutes of seeds throughout the wetland.
Two species of cattail are most common in the United States: broad-leaved (Typha latifolia) and narrow-leaved (Typha angustifolia). Regardless of the species, foragers lovingly refer to the cattail as “nature’s grocery store” for its many edible parts. Cattail tubers can be roasted like potatoes, and the crunchy young shoots taste like a cross between celery and cucumbers. In the spring, the young, green flowerheads are delicious when boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. Fastidious outdoorsman can use cattail pollen as hair conditioner or mash the roots to make a bracing toothpaste.
In the past, Native Americans relied on the cattail plant in many ways. Besides its culinary uses, the cattail was woven to form matting for wigwams, baskets, and bedding. It was also braided into cordage. When dried, stems were used in crafting arrows, and the fluffy fall seeds made for good tinder.
Although native, cattail is known as an aggressive plant due to its ability to propagate by seed and through its thick, white roots, called rhizomes. Nevertheless, cattails are championed by environmentalists for their ability to absorb water pollution. Planting cattails in degraded wetlands may even help prevent the excess methane emissions associated with global warming.
Past, present, and future, the cattail has good reason to be a perennial favorite. Visit the Arboretum’s wetland soon to view the cattail in all its fall glory.
by Jenny Houghton
Youth Program Coordinator