The Ups and Downs of Cutting Cattails

What Are Cattails?

Cattails are tall, erect plants that grow in wetlands and marshes across North America. They have long, flat, strap-like green leaves that can grow up to 10 feet tall. The leaves emerge from a spreading rhizome system below ground. At the top of the plant is a dense, cylindrical, brown flower spike. This brown “cat tail” spike gives the plant its common name (

Cattails are considered a wetland plant because they grow in marshes, wet ditches, along pond edges, and other wet areas. They thrive in wet, nutrient-rich soil and shallow water depths. Cattails help filter contaminants and pollutants from water and prevent erosion along shorelines. They also provide food and habitat for wildlife (

Native Americans used cattails extensively for food, medicine, and material goods. The rhizomes are starchy and a good carbohydrate source. The young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Cattail fluff makes excellent tinder for starting fires, and the leaves can be woven into mats, baskets, and other items ( Today, cattails are still utilized for art, landscaping, wildlife gardens, and more.

Reasons People Cut Down Cattails

There are several common reasons why people choose to cut down cattails:

For decorative or craft purposes – The fluffy, brown cattail heads can be used dried or fresh in floral arrangements and craft projects. Many people cut cattails for decorative purposes around holidays or to use in homemade wreaths, swags, and bouquets. The dried seed heads also make attractive decorative elements in the home.

To use in construction projects – The stalks of cattails can be woven and lashed together to make walls, mats, baskets, and thatch roofs. Native Americans and early settlers often used cattails in building projects because they were plentiful near waterways. Some people still harvest cattails to incorporate into rustic building projects today.

To prevent overgrowth – If left unchecked, cattails can quickly spread and take over areas of ponds, wetlands, and waterways. Cutting cattails helps control their growth so they don’t completely choke out open water areas. It allows more diversity of aquatic plants and animals. Removal also helps maintain drainage and access for boats or swimming.


How to Cut Down Cattails

Cutting down cattails requires having the proper tools and techniques to effectively remove the plants. The most commonly used tools for cutting cattails include:

Sickle or hedge shears – Long handled sickle shears allow you to cut at the base of the plants without having to bend over. The long handles provide leverage to cut through the tough stems.

Loppers – Bypass loppers with long handles are ideal for thicker cattail stems that are difficult to cut with hand shears. The scissoring action of bypass loppers makes clean cuts.

Machete – A machete is useful for clearing large swaths of dense cattail growth quickly. Be cautious when using a machete and take care not to inadvertently cut non-target plants.

Weed whip – A gas-powered string trimmer can rapidly cut back tall stands of cattails. Use a heavy duty trimmer line that is resistant to breaking.

When cutting cattails, it’s important to cut at the base of the plant right above the soil line or slightly below it. Cutting too high will allow the plants to regrow. Safety precautions should be taken when using sharp tools near water, including wearing gloves and eye protection.

Once cut, the removed cattail plant material will need to be disposed of properly. Piling cut cattails onsite provides habitat for wildlife. Cattails can also be composted, burned where permitted, or disposed of in household yard waste bags.


When to Cut Cattails

The best time to cut cattails is after flowering and seed dispersal in late summer or early fall, before new growth begins in spring. According to Cornell Cooperative Extension, cutting cattails in May actually stimulates growth, so it’s best to wait until late summer if only cutting once a year1. Late summer and early fall is ideal because cattails have finished dispersing seeds, so cutting won’t spread them further. Additionally, cattails start to naturally die back in fall, so cutting then removes biomass that would decompose over winter anyway. Heather from Home to Heather recommends gathering well-formed, fuzzy cattails in late summer and early fall for preservation in floral arrangements2. Overall, late summer to early fall provides the best window to cut cattails after seed dispersal but before regrowth each year.

Regulations on Cutting Cattails

There are some regulations regarding the cutting of cattails that you need to be aware of before removing them from your property.

Cattails are considered a protected wetland plant in some areas. For example, in Minnesota, you need a permit from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) before removing cattails and other aquatic plants like bulrushes from public waters [1]. The permit process helps ensure habitat protection and prevent spread of invasive species.

Additionally, some cattail species like the Southern cattail are listed as threatened or endangered in certain states. So before cutting any cattails, check with your local wildlife agency to ensure you don’t accidentally impact protected cattail populations.

In general, completely removing cattails from wetlands and shorelines is discouraged and requires permits. But some cutting and control can be done through mechanical means like cutting below the water line or herbicide application according to label guidelines. Always check regulations before cutting cattails near public waters or wetlands.

Impacts of Cutting Cattails

Cutting cattails can have several impacts on wetland ecosystems and wildlife. According to the Cornell Cooperative Extension (, completely removing cattails from a wetland area can negatively impact wildlife that use them for food, shelter, and nesting areas. For example, red-winged blackbirds nest in cattails and muskrats eat the shoots and rhizomes. Eliminating all cattails from a wetland removes vital habitat.

Cutting cattails can also affect the spread of seeds and propagules. According to The Quandary Over Cattails (, cutting cattail plants below the water line in early summer, before the seed heads emerge, can help limit the spread of seeds to other parts of the wetland. However, any remaining rhizomes may sprout new shoots. Cutting cattails at the wrong time of year could inadvertently spread seeds or fragments that generate new plants.

Overall, complete removal of cattails can damage wetland ecosystems that depend on them. Selective cutting may help control overgrowth while preserving some habitat value. Monitoring and repeated cutting over multiple years is often needed for best results.

Cattail Control Methods

There are several methods to control cattails, depending on the extent of the infestation and whether herbicide use is desired:


Manually cutting cattails can be effective for small areas. The plants should be cut below the water line using a specialized aquatic weed cutter, scythe, or other sharp tool to remove the above-ground growth and disrupt the rhizomes. Cutting too high will allow regrowth. Repeated cutting will help deplete root reserves and control regrowth [1].

Herbicide Application

Applying aquatic herbicides containing glyphosate or imazapyr to freshly cut cattail stalks can improve control by translocating the herbicide into the rhizomes. Proper protective equipment should be worn during application. Only EPA approved aquatic herbicides should be used according to label directions [2].


Draining or lowering the water level in early spring before growth starts can stress cattails. Repeat draining for a few years may control infestations. Ensure proper permits are obtained before draining wetlands [3].


Prescribed burns in the early spring every 2-3 years can reduce cattail density. Burning removes dead material and stimulates new growth that wildlife can then utilize. Consult local authorities on burning regulations.


Livestock like geese, sheep, and goats will graze on cattails. High-density rotational grazing provides the best control. Grazers trample and consume rhizomes, reducing density.

Cattail Uses

Cattails have many traditional and practical uses that make them a versatile plant to have around. Some of the top uses of cattails include:

Food Source

The young shoots of cattails can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked like asparagus in the spring. In summer, the female flower spikes produce tender white shoots inside that can be steamed and eaten like corn on the cob. Once the flower heads ripen and turn brown, a tasty jelly can be made from the white pollen ( The starchy rhizomes of cattails can also be roasted, boiled or ground into flour.

Building Material

The leaves of cattails can be dried and woven into mats, baskets, and seat covers. The fluffy seed heads make good insulation material when used to stuff mattresses, pillows, etc ( Cattail stems are also used to construct shelters, huts, and temporary fencing.

Crafts and Art

Cattail leaves can be twisted and wrapped together to create decorative cords and ropes. The fluff from dried seed heads is used to stuff stuffed animals and dolls. Cattail heads are also used in floral arrangements and craft projects.

Erosion Control

Dense stands of cattails help stabilize shorelines and prevent erosion in wetland areas. Their complex root systems bind the soil together. Cattails can be deliberately planted to control erosion along ponds, lakes, and rivers.

Cattail Propagation

Cattails can be easily propagated through seed collection, division, and transplanting.

To propagate from seed, allow the cattail heads to ripen and disperse seeds naturally in the fall. Collect the fluffy seeds and sow them in moist soil or soak them in water for 24 hours before planting to aid germination. Cattail seeds need light to germinate, so do not cover them. Keep the soil or water moist until the seeds sprout. Germination may take 1-2 months.[1]

Division is another simple method for propagating cattails. Carefully dig up an existing clump in early spring before new growth begins. Gently separate sections with shoots and roots attached using your hands or a shovel. Replant the divisions 18-24 inches apart in the same depth of water or moist soil. Dividing mature clumps helps reduce overcrowding and allows the transplants to quickly establish.[2]

For transplanting, select young sprouts from an existing stand and move them to the desired location. Transplant in spring or fall and water thoroughly after planting. Staking helps stabilize newly transplanted cattails until the roots take hold.[1]

With proper seed collection, division, and transplanting techniques, cattails can be easily propagated to expand stands in gardens or wetland areas.



In summary, cattails are versatile wetland plants that provide ecosystem services like filtration and habitat, but can also become invasive in some situations. There are valid reasons for controlling cattails, like restoring biodiversity, improving water flow, or accessing land. The best method depends on the goals and situation. Cutting cattails can be done in various ways, but timing and technique are important to prevent unwanted spread. Always check regulations first, as permits may be required to alter wetlands, even on private property.

In most cases, cutting cattails is permissible with proper precautions and timing. Focus cutting at the base of stems to prevent regeneration. Dispose of cut material properly offsite so it does not reroot. Follow up continually with additional cuts or other methods like covering the area. For large infestations, herbicide or more aggressive approaches may be warranted. Consider alternatives like planting native species if cattails are providing habitat. With care and diligence, cutting can effectively control cattails while supporting biodiversity and access.

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