The Secret Life of Cattails. Why This Common Plant Is More Useful Than You Think


Cattails are a type of wetland plant known by the scientific name Typha. There are several species of cattails that grow worldwide, but the most common is the broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia). Cattails are easily recognized by their long, erect leaves that resemble hot dog buns or spikes of velvety sausage. The leaves surround a thick stalk that can reach heights of 3-9 feet tall. On top of the stalk is a dense, cylindrical flower spike composed of hundreds of small individual flowers. This unique structure gives cattails their characteristic appearance.

Cattails grow on the edges of ponds, lakes, marshes and slow-moving streams throughout much of the world. They thrive in wet, marshy soils and are well-adapted to flood plains and areas that are frequently inundated by water. Cattails grow in dense stands and can quickly colonize open wetlands, crowding out other species. Their ability to rapidly spread and reproduce has contributed to their worldwide distribution.

Food Source

Cattails have a long history as a food source for humans. The starchy rhizomes that grow underground can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked, with a flavor similar to potatoes or water chestnuts. New shoots that emerge in the spring can also be peeled and eaten, and have been described as tasting like mild cucumbers.

Once cattails start to flower in mid to late spring, the male flowers produce abundant yellow pollen that can be easily collected. This pollen has been used as a nutritious flour substitute in recipes for breads, pancakes, muffins, and other baked goods (source). The pollen contains amino acids and is a good source of protein.

The ability to extract edible starch from the roots, harvest tasty shoots, and collect nutritious pollen make cattails a versatile food source from early spring through late fall.

Traditional Medicinal Uses

For centuries, Native Americans have used parts of the cattail plant for medicinal purposes to treat a variety of ailments. The starchy rhizomes can be used to make a soothing poultice to treat wounds, burns, sores, and swelling when peeled, mashed, and applied directly to the affected area (Cattail: Plant Of A Thousand Uses). Cattail pollen has also been used traditionally to alleviate headaches. The sap from cattail leaves can provide relief from stomach ailments like diarrhea when ingested (The incredible cattail — The super Wal-Mart of the swamp). Overall, various parts of the cattail plant have served important medicinal purposes for Indigenous peoples for ages.


Cattails have been used traditionally by indigenous peoples to create shelter and housing materials.[1] The long, flat leaves of the common cattail can be woven and layered into water-resistant thatch for roofing and siding.[2] Cattails leaves were commonly used by Native Americans to create mats for sitting and sleeping. The leaves can be dried, woven together, and sewn into place with strips of the leaf to create durable, comfortable mats.

The leaves can also be coiled and sewn into baskets, bags and other containers. Cattail leaves have good tensile strength when dried, and the waxy coating helps makes them naturally waterproof. With simple weaving and sewing techniques, cattails can be transformed into baskets, hats, mats and thatch panels to create shelters.

[1] “4 Ways to Use the Incredible Cattail for Survival.” Off Grid World, 9 Apr. 2014, Accessed [today’s date]

[2] “Cattails are the perfect survival food, tool, shelter and medicine.” AAA Native Arts, Accessed [today’s date]

Biofuel Source

Cattails have emerged as a promising biofuel source due to their high starch content, especially in the rhizomes (underground stems). Research conducted by the International Institute for Sustainable Development found that cattails can produce 4,000-7,000 liters of ethanol per hectare (Cattail Biomass in a Watershed-Based Bioeconomy). The starch content makes cattail rhizomes well-suited for conversion into ethanol, a renewable transportation fuel.

Pilot projects harvesting cattails for biofuel have shown promising results. For example, in Manitoba, Canada, over 1,000 tonnes of cattail biomass was harvested and processed into biofuel pellets (Cattails Into Clean Energy: Where to from here?). Cattail biofuel could provide an alternative to fossil fuels, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and create value from wetlands.

However, some challenges exist around the commercial viability of cattail biofuel production. Factors like harvest and transportation costs, biomass processing, and market developlment need to be addressed. Overall, cattails show potential as a biofuel feedstock through their high starch rhizomes if production systems become more efficient.

Wildlife Habitat

Cattails provide important food and shelter for birds, mammals, and amphibians. The San Diego Zoo notes that dense stands of cattails create safe nesting areas for red-winged blackbirds, marsh wrens, ducks, and geese. Muskrats often build lodges out of cattail stalks to live in. 

According to the Nature Conservancy, the brown, fluffy flower spikes that emerge in summer provide food for various seed-eating birds like red-winged blackbirds, bobolinks, mourning doves, and marsh wrens. 

Cattails also provide habitat for frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders, which lay their eggs on submerged cattail leaves. The vegetation filters the water and provides protection from predators. 

Dense cattail stands give small mammals like muskrats, voles, and mink protective cover from predators. Muskrats often construct dome-shaped lodges to live in using cattail stalks and roots.


Erosion Control

One of the key benefits of cattails is their ability to control erosion along shorelines. Cattails have an extensive underground root system that helps stabilize soil and prevent it from washing away. According to an article on the Utica Observer-Dispatch website, “Cattails aid in erosion control by helping to protect the banks of a pond; they intercept and reduce the force of small waves and wind on a pond’s edge” (Source). The dense network of roots binds the soil particles together, acting as an effective buffer against erosion. In ponds and lakes, stands of cattails along the edges can significantly reduce erosion from water currents and waves. Their stiff stems also help break up the action of moving water. Overall, the extensive root system of cattails makes them excellent erosion control plants in aquatic environments.

Water Filtration

The rhizomes or underground stems of cattails have been shown to filter contaminants from water. One study tested the ability of cattails to remove phosphate, cyanuric acid, and adjust pH and alkalinity levels from laundry greywater. The researchers found the cattail rhizomes significantly reduced phosphate and cyanuric acid levels while increasing pH and alkalinity. This natural water filtration ability makes cattails a potentially sustainable option for greywater treatment systems.

The dense network of roots in cattail rhizomes help strain out pollutants like fertilizers, pesticides, and heavy metals from water sources. Rhizomes also promote sedimentation which allows contaminants to settle out of the water column. Through absorption and sedimentation, cattails can effectively remove impurities and create cleaner water downstream.

Artistic Inspiration

Cattails have long provided artistic inspiration for native cultures and contemporary artists (Creative Ways to Use Preserved Cattails in Home Decor). The fluffy “tails” can be dried and used to stuff pillows and handicrafts. Native Americans traditionally used cattail leaves to weave beautiful baskets, mats, and hats.

Today, preserved cattail stalks are a popular addition to home décor. Their unique texture and neutral color make them perfect for rustic or bohemian styled spaces. Cattails are also popular photography subjects, with their dramatic seed heads capturing the imagination.

Whether woven into baskets, dried for décor, or photographed in their natural habitat, cattails continue to provide artistic inspiration from traditional native crafts to contemporary art forms.


Cattails have long been an extremely versatile and valuable plant for humans. As outlined in this article, cattails can be used as a nutritious food source, provide natural medicinal remedies, create warm shelter and bedding, produce biofuel, support wildlife habitats, control erosion, filter water, and inspire art. The cattail’s ability to thrive in wetlands around the world while providing so many ecological and anthropocentric benefits highlight its overall importance. While cattails are sometimes seen as a nuisance weed, this article summarizes the many ways that cattails can be an asset. With proper management, cattails can continue to play a positive role in wetland ecosystems and support human needs well into the future.

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