What Are The Invasive Species Replacing Cattails?


Invasive species are defined as organisms that cause harm in areas where they are not native (National Geographic, 2022). They can be plants, animals, or other organisms that take over new ecosystems, often displacing native species. One native plant being increasingly threatened by invasive species in North America is the common cattail (Typha latifolia).

Cattails are an iconic wetland plant, recognized for their brown, sausage-shaped flower spikes (National Geographic, 2022). They play important roles in wetland ecosystems. Their dense roots stabilize shorelines, filter pollutants from water, and provide habitat for birds, insects, and other wildlife. Unfortunately, several aggressive invasive plant species are displacing cattails in many areas.

The Historic Role of Cattails

Cattails have a long history in North America, where they are native plants that have been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Cattails are found near freshwater wetlands across the continent.1 They have provided sustenance and shelter to many Native American tribes. For example, the Potawatomi people wove cattail leaves into mats for sitting and sleeping.2 The fluffy seed heads were used as insulation in clothing and bedding. Cattails also served medicinal purposes, with their roots used to treat wounds, coughs, sprains, and other ailments.1

In the ecosystem, cattails play a key role in stabilizing shorelines and supporting wetland biodiversity. Their dense root systems prevent soil erosion. Cattail stalks provide nesting material for birds and habitat for aquatic wildlife. As a native plant, the cattail is well-integrated into wetland food webs.

Invasive Species Threatening Cattails

Several invasive plant species are outcompeting native cattails in wetland areas across North America. Two of the most problematic invaders are Phragmites and hybrid cattails.

Phragmites (Phragmites australis) is an aggressive wetland grass native to Europe and Asia. It was likely introduced to North America unintentionally in the 1800s. Since then, it has spread rapidly and can now be found in every U.S. state except Hawaii. Phragmites forms dense stands that crowd out native plants and alter wetland hydrology.

Hybrid cattails are a cross between the native common cattail (Typha latifolia) and the introduced, invasive narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia). Narrowleaf cattails originated in Europe and Asia and were brought to North America in the early 19th century. The two species readily hybridize, producing vigorous offspring (Typha x glauca) that can displace native cattails.

Both Phragmites and hybrid cattails spread mainly through wind dispersal of seeds and rhizome fragments. They are difficult to control once established and can significantly degrade wetland habitats that would normally be dominated by native cattails.

Impacts on Ecosystems

Invasive species can have major negative impacts on native ecosystems and biodiversity. According to the National Ocean Service, invasive species are one of the leading threats to native wildlife and ecosystems, often causing habitat degradation, decline of native species, and extinction.

Invasive species affect native biodiversity and ecosystems in a number of ways. They can prey on native species, outcompete native species for food or other resources, and spread disease. For example, the invasive Burmese python has caused severe declines in many native mammal species in the Florida Everglades.

Invasive species also alter and degrade habitats. For instance, invasive grasses may transform diverse habitats into mono-culture grasslands. This can diminish resources for native species. According to the National Wildlife Federation, invasive species are a leading cause of native species becoming threatened or endangered.

Invasive species disrupt food chains and energy flow through ecosystems. They can dominate food webs and disrupt predator-prey relationships. For example, the invasive zebra mussel has altered energy flow in the Great Lakes by consuming large amounts of phytoplankton, reducing food sources for native species.

Overall, invasive species reduce biodiversity and ecosystem resilience. They homogenize the environment at genetic, species, and ecosystem levels. This can leave ecosystems more vulnerable to other disturbances and environmental change.

Case Study: Phragmites

Phragmites (Phragmites australis) is an invasive reed that has become widespread across North America, often replacing cattail marshes. According to https://www.lifeinthefingerlakes.com/phragmites-vs-cattails/, phragmites is native to Europe and was likely introduced to North America in the 1800s. It spreads rapidly through rhizomes underground and dispersal of seeds.

Phragmites forms dense stands that crowd out native plants like cattails and reduce biodiversity. According to http://cygnetenterprises.com/files/Phragmites%20and%20Cattail%20Treatment%20Frequently%20Asked%20Questions.pdf, phragmites can grow up to 18 feet tall, much higher than typical cattails. This shades out other plants beneath it.

The loss of cattail marshes to phragmites impacts wildlife. Cattails provide important habitat for birds and aquatic life. Phragmites stands are less beneficial for native wildlife. Control efforts are ongoing to remove phragmites and restore cattail marshes.

Case Study: Purple Loosestrife

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is an invasive wetland plant that originated in Europe and Asia. It was introduced to North America in the 1800s, likely as a contaminant in ship ballast water and as an ornamental garden plant. Since then, purple loosestrife has spread aggressively across wetlands in the United States and Canada.

Purple loosestrife can spread rapidly due to its prolific seed production. Each plant can produce up to 2.7 million seeds annually. It also spreads vegetatively through underground stems. As a result, just a few loosestrife plants can lead to complete domination of a wetland in just a few years if left uncontrolled.

Purple loosestrife displaces native wetland vegetation like cattails that provide food and shelter for wildlife. As it spreads, purple loosestrife forms dense stands that restrict light, alter hydrology, and reduce biodiversity. This affects habitat for waterfowl, amphibians, and other species. Studies have shown that some wetland bird species decline in abundance when loosestrife invades.

To limit its spread, various biological control agents like leaf-eating beetles have been introduced to manage purple loosestrife. Manual and chemical control methods are also used. Preventing new introductions and removing small infestations early is key to protecting wetlands from purple loosestrife invasion.

Prevention and Control

There are several methods that can be used to prevent the spread of invasive species and manage their growth to help restore native cattail populations. These include both physical and chemical control methods.

Physical control methods involve manually removing the invasive plants. This can be done by hand-pulling small patches of invasive species. For larger areas, cutting or mowing can be effective to remove aboveground growth. However, the root systems will need to be removed as well, either by dredging or using a spade to dig out the roots (Source 1). Repeated cutting or mowing over time can help deplete root reserves and control regrowth. It is critical to continue monitoring and removing any regrowth.

Chemical control typically involves the use of aquatic herbicides specifically targeted to invasive wetland plants. Glyphosate and Imazapyr are two herbicides often used. Proper timing and application method are essential for effective control using herbicides while minimizing risks to native plants and wildlife (Source 2). Herbicide application should be combined with continued monitoring and maintenance.

Using an integrated approach with both physical and chemical control methods implemented properly over time provides the best results for managing invasive species, restoring native cattails, and protecting wetland ecosystems. Preventing the initial introduction and spread of invasive plants is always the most effective management strategy.

Restoration Efforts

As invasive species like phragmites and purple loosestrife take over wetlands, restoration efforts seek to re-establish native cattail populations. One method is harvesting the invasive plants. At Cheboygan Marsh in Michigan, conservationists used special wetland plant harvesters to remove invasive cattails and open up space for native species (https://news.umich.edu/harvesting-invasive-cattails-to-restore-marsh-biodiversity/). Over 5 years, nearly 300 acres were harvested. Native plant species rebounded in the cleared areas. While not eradicating invasive cattails completely, selective harvesting suppressed their growth enough for native plants to recover.

Another technique is applying herbicide to invasive plants while avoiding harm to native cattails. The Grassland Restoration Network tested different herbicides and methods to control invasive cattails. They found that selectively wiping herbicide on invasive cattail leaves was effective, while avoiding widespread spraying that could damage native plants (https://grasslandrestorationnetwork.org/2019/07/29/managing-invasive-cattails-by-nathan-herbert/).

With persistent management efforts, wetlands can be restored to their natural state, supporting healthy native cattail populations and biodiversity.

Looking Ahead

Much research still needs to be done to understand the long-term impacts of invasive cattails replacing native species. Scientists predict the spread of invasive cattails will continue, but the full effects on wetland ecosystems remain unknown. More studies are required to track changes over time and model future scenarios.

Some key areas for future research include:

  • Developing more effective control methods to contain invasive cattails
  • Breeding and reintroducing native cattails that can better withstand competition
  • Understanding the cascading effects on food chains and biodiversity
  • Modeling the spread patterns and rates across North America

Wetland restoration efforts will need to increasingly focus on managing invasive cattails and promoting native cattail growth. While the outlook is concerning, biologists are hopeful that with proper management, diverse wetland ecosystems can be preserved for the future.


In summary, invasive species like Phragmites and Purple Loosestrife are rapidly replacing native cattail populations across North America. This is threatening biodiversity and the health of wetland ecosystems that depend on cattails. Cattails provide food and habitat for wildlife, help prevent erosion, and support the natural water filtration process. The loss of cattails can therefore have cascading impacts across entire ecosystems.

It’s critical that we better understand, monitor and control invasive species. This will require a coordinated effort between scientists, wildlife agencies, land managers, policy makers and local communities. Protecting native biodiversity needs to become an urgent priority if we want to maintain healthy ecosystems for future generations. While the challenges are great, there are solutions. Through continual research, innovation, education and stewardship of the land, we can curb invasive species and restore balance to impacted wetlands.

In the end, the fate of cattails reminds us how interconnected life is on our planet. Small changes can ripple through entire ecosystems in ways we don’t anticipate. This is why maintaining rich biodiversity is so important – it strengthens the web of life. With care and persistence, we can safeguard our irreplaceable natural heritage from the threat of invasive species.

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