Cattails or reedmaces are about 10 species of monocotyledonous plants in the genus Typha, comprising the family Typhaceae. Cattails are tall herbaceous aquatic plants, growing from stout rhizomes located in shallow sediments of wetlands. The leaves of cattails are long and straplike, sheathing at the base of the plant, while the spike-like inflorescence is borne by a long cylindrical shoot. The typical habitat of cattails is productive marshes, the edges of shallow, fertile lakes, and ditches. Cattails occur in temperate and tropical regions but not in Australia or South America.
Cattail inflorescences are dense aggregations of numerous small separate female and male flowers, the latter occurring segregated at the top of the club-like flowering structure. Pollination is anemophilous, meaning the pollen is shed copiously to the wind, which transports it to the stigmatic surfaces of female flowers. The small, mature fruits of cattails are shed late in the growing season or during the ensuing autumn or winter. The fruits have a white filamentous pappus that makes them aerodynamically buoyant so they can be easily dispersed by the wind.
Two familiar species of cattail in North America are the broad-leaved cattail (Typha latifolia ) and the narrow-leaved cattail (T. angustifolia ). Both occur commonly in a wide range of fertile, freshwater wetlands.
Cattail leaves are sometimes used for weaving mats, baskets, chair bottoms, and floor mats. Cattail pollen can be collected and used to make or include in protein-rich pancakes and breads. The rhizomes of cattails are sometimes collected and used as a starchy food. Sometimes the dried plants are collected, dried, and used for winter bouquets and other natural decorations.
Cattails’ major importance, however, is ecological. These plants are a significant component of the vegetation of many productive marshes. As such, they help provide critical habitat for many species of aquatic wildlife such as waterfowl, waders, other species of birds, and mammals such as muskrats.
Because of their great productivity, cattails can take up large quantities of nutrients from water and sediment. This makes these plants rather efficient and useful at cleansing nutrients from both natural and waste waters. In this way cattails can help to alleviate
eutrophication, an environmental problem associated with large rates of aquatic productivity caused by nutrient loading.