AskDefine | Define cattail

Dictionary Definition

cattail n : tall erect herbs with sword-shaped leaves; cosmopolitan in fresh and salt marshes

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. Any of several perennial herbs, of the genus Typha, that have long flat leaves, and grow in marshy places



Extensive Definition

Typha is a genus of about eleven species of monocotyledonous flowering plants in the monogeneric family, Typhaceae. The genus has a largely Northern Hemisphere distribution, but is essentially cosmopolitan, being found in a variety of wetland habitats. These plants are known in British English as bulrush, bullrush or reedmace, and in American English as cattail or punks. Cattails should not be confused with the bulrush of the genus Scirpus.
Cattails are wetland plants, typically 1 to 7 m tall (T. minima is smaller: 0.5-1 m), with spongy, strap-like leaves and starchy, creeping stems (rhizomes). The leaves are alternate and mostly basal to a simple, jointless stem that eventually bears the flowers. The rhizomes spread horizontally beneath the surface of muddy ground to start new upright growth, and the spread of cattails is an important part of the process of open water bodies being converted to vegetated marshland and eventually dry land.
Typha plants are monoecious, wind-pollinated, and bear unisexual flowers developing in dense, complex spikes. The male flower spike develops at the top of the vertical stem, above the female flower spike (see figure below). The male (staminate) flowers are reduced to a pair of stamens and hairs and wither once the pollen is shed, leaving a short, bare stem portion above the female inflorescence. The dense cluster of female flowers forms a cylindrical spike some 10 to as much as 40 cm long and 1 to 4 cm broad. Seeds are minute (about 0.2 mm long), and attached to a thin hair or stalk, which effects wind dispersal. Typha are often among the first wetland plants to colonize areas of newly exposed wet mud.
Some classifications include the genus Sparganium (Sparganiaceae) in Typhaceae.


The most widespread species is Typha latifolia, extending across the entire temperate Northern Hemisphere. T. angustifolia is nearly as widespread, but does not extend so far north. T. domingensis is a more southerly American species, extending from the U.S. to South America, while T. laxmannii, T. minima and T. shuttleworthii are largely restricted to Asia and parts of southern Europe.
Typha plants grow along lake margins and in marshes, often in dense colonies, and are sometimes considered a weed in managed wetlands. The plant's root systems help prevent erosion, and the plants themselves are often home to many insects, birds and amphibians.
In North America, the native cattails are increasingly being supplanted by the invasive purple loosestrife Lythrum salicaria.

Edible uses

Cattail has a wide variety of parts that are edible to humans. The rhizomes are a pleasant, nutritious and energy-rich food source, generally harvested from late Fall to early Spring. These are starchy, but also fibrous, so the starch must be scraped or sucked from the tough fibers. In addition to the rhizomes, cattails have little-known, underground, lateral stems that are quite tasty. In late spring, the bases of the leaves, while they are young and tender, can be eaten raw or cooked. As the flower spike is developing in early summer, it can be broken off and eaten, and in mid-summer, once the flowers are mature, the pollen can be collected and used as a flour supplement or thickener.


The disintegrating heads are used by some birds to line their nests. The downy material was also used by Native Americans as tinder for starting fires.
Native American tribes also used cattail down to line moccasins and papoose boards. An Indian name for cattail meant, “fruit for papoose’s bed”. Today some people still use cattail down to stuff clothing items and pillows.
The down has also been used to fill life vests in the same manner as kapok.
If using the cattail for pillow stuffing you may be wise to use thick batting material, as the fluff may cause a reaction similar to hives and will be very itchy.


cattail in Bulgarian: Папур
cattail in Catalan: Boga
cattail in Czech: Orobinec
cattail in Danish: Dunhammer
cattail in German: Rohrkolbengewächse
cattail in Estonian: Hundinui
cattail in Spanish: Typha
cattail in Esperanto: Tifao
cattail in French: Typha
cattail in Upper Sorbian: Rohodź
cattail in Hebrew: סוף
cattail in Georgian: ლაქაში
cattail in Lithuanian: Švendras
cattail in Dutch: Lisdoddefamilie
cattail in Japanese: ガマ
cattail in Norwegian: Dunkjevlefamilien
cattail in Norwegian Nynorsk: Dunkjevlefamilien
cattail in Polish: Pałka
cattail in Russian: Рогоз
cattail in Simple English: Typha
cattail in Serbian: Шевар
cattail in Finnish: Osmankäämikasvit
cattail in Ukrainian: Рогіз
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