Common Name: Cattail, Bulrush, Reedmace, Catninetail, Cumbungi, Raupo
Scientific Name: Typha species
Family: Typhaceae (a large marsh herb family)

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The classic wetland plant… a perfect permaculture plant!

Common Species (well, all of them, give or take one or two due to quibbling over nomenclature):

  • Narrow Leaf Cattail,  Lesser Bulrush, Small Reedmace, or Jambu (India) (Typha angustifolia)
  • Cape Bulrush (Typha capensis), only found in Southern Africa
  • Asian species with no common English name (Typha davidiana)
  • Bulrush, Southern Cattail, Narrow-Leaved Cumbungi (Australia) (Typha domingensis)
  • Common Cattail, Reedmace (Typha latifolia)
  • Laxman’s Bulrush (Typha laxmannii), likely the same species as Typha bungeana
  • Dwarf Bulrush (Typha minima)
  • Broadleaf Cumbungi (Australia), Raupo (New Zealand) (Typha orientalis) probably the same plant as Shuttleworth’s Bulrush (Typha shuttleworthii)
  • White Cattail (Typha x glauca) – this is a hybrid of T. angustifolia x T. latifolia
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One of the best bioremediation (water filter and such) plants on Earth.
These systems can be very intricate…

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…or less so (and less attractive!), but the Cattails don’t care, and the water is still cleaned.

Description:
Whether they are called Cattails, Bulrush, Reedmace, Cumbungi, or another local name, few people are unfamiliar with their local Typha species. This common wetland plant is one of the most versatile elements a Permaculturist can add to a land design. Most parts are edible and have been used as such for thousands of years. Animals utilize this plant for food and shelter. The leaves and stems can thatch a roof, make paper, or fuel a fire as charcoal… to name but of few of many uses. This fast growing plant is also one of the best wetland water filters on Earth. This plant should be strongly considered for any water feature you have!

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Typha species

History:
Native and widespread around the Northern Hemisphere, from just below the Arctic to the Tropics. It has been used as food, fuel, fiber, and medicine by indigenous people in these areas. It has been introduced to many new locations around the globe, and it continues to be used in many ways around the world but most commonly as either a decorative wetland plant or as a natural water filter species.

Trivia:

  • Typha × glauca – this is a hybrid cattail (T. angustifolia × T. latifolia) and is the White Cattail which is typically sterile… not a bad choice if you are concerned about spread by seed. This plant will still expand through rhizome (root) expansion.
  • Evidence of preserved starch grains on grinding stones suggests they were eaten in Europe 30,000 years ago (from Wikipedia)
  • Pulp of the Common Cattail can be used to make rayon, although wood pulp is the most common source of this semi-synthetic fiber
  • Rush Lights are a type of candle made by soaking the dried pith (inner core) of Cattail (aka “Rush”) stalks in household fat or grease; traditionally bacon fat was most common, but sheep fat was also used since it dried to a harder consistency. Beeswax was often added to make the candle burn longer
  • Pollen from Cattails is used in fireworks production
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The immature male flowers are edible and many consider it a delicacy.

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They can be cooked and eaten right off the core, or scraped off and used in many ways.

Here is one method of cooking flower spikes from Wendy Petty: http://hungerandthirstforlife.blogspot.pt/2010/06/wild-about-cattail-flowers.html

USING THIS PLANT

Primary Uses:

  • Ornamental Plant – used in water gardens and even florist’s displays
  • Edible Roots – raw or cooked. Can be treated like potatoes.
  • Edible Shoots – young shoots can be used raw or cooked, like a cucumber-tasting asparagus (known as “Cossack Asparagus” due to their popularity with Ukranians and Russians); peel the outer layers and use the heart, ideally used before they become fibrous
  • Edible Stems – just the base, peel back the outer stem. This is the only part of this plant I have eaten so far. It was quite palatable to a 10 year old boy swimming in a pond in south Florida!
  • Edible Flower Spike – only the immature male flower spike, used raw or cooked, reportedly tastes like sweet corn
  • Edible Seed – raw or cooked, but difficult to harvest and use, but some do. An oil can be obtained from the seeds
  • Edible Pollen – raw or cooked, high in protein, added to soups as a thickener or flours as an additive
  • Flour – roots and seeds can be dried and ground into a flour. This flour can be added to cereal flours for bread making. The flour can be used as a thickening agent in soups, stews, and sauces.
  • Syrup – roots are chopped up and boiled which yields a sweet syrup

Secondary Uses:

  • General insect (especially bees) pollen plant
  • Wildlife Shelter – small mammals, birds, insects, fish (especially juvenile fish), crustaceans, etc.; birds will use the “hairs” on the fruit to line their nests
  • Wildlife Food – many animals will eat the seeds, but especially birds
  • Bioremediation Plant – beds of Cattails can be used as part of a biological filtration system to clean and purify contaminated water, often as part of a constructed wetland. This can be part of a home gray water system as well.
  • Biomass Plant – very fast growing plant can produce large amounts of organic matter in a short time
  • Fuel Plant – the dried stems and leaves can be used directly as fire fuel or to make charcoal (see the first video on this page from an MIT professor)
  • Thatch Plant – used to make thatched roofs
  • Fiber Plant – from stems, leaves, and flowers, used to make paper, mats, hats, chairs, baskets, etc.
  • Tinder Plant – the female flowers have been used as tinder to start fires
  • Other uses – the hairs of the fruits are used to stuff pillows, diapers, and wound dressings; the flowering stems can be dried and used as insulation

Yield: Variable, in one study, 2.5 acres (1 hectare) produced 8 tons (16,000 lbs or 7,250 kg) of flour from the roots.
Harvesting: One report states the roots are best when harvested in Autumn through to Spring. Shoots are harvested in Spring until 20 inches (50 cm) tall. The leaves can be harvest year-round, but typically less in the Spring when rapid growth is underway.
Storage: Use within a few days fresh. The roots and seeds can be dried and stored whole or ground into flour. Flour does not store as long as whole seeds or roots.

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The rhizomes (type of root) grow and allow the plant to spread… and they are edible!

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

USDA Hardiness Zone: 2-12

  • Narrow Leaf Cattail,  Lesser Bulrush (Typha angustifolia): Zone 3-11
  • Bulrush, Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis): Zone 5-11
  • Common Cattail, Reedmace (Typha latifolia): Zone 2-11
  • Laxman’s Bulrush (Typha laxmannii): Zone 4
  • Dwarf Bulrush (Typha minima): Zone 6
  • White Cattail (Typha x glauca): Zone 3-11 (probably Zone 2 as well)

AHS Heat Zone: 12-1
Chill Requirement: Unlikely.

Plant Type: Herbaceous Wetland Plant
Leaf Type: Deciduous
Forest Garden Use: Aquatic/Wetland Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: There are a number of species and varieties available

Pollination: Self-fertile – these plants are considered monoecious... a single plant will have both male and female flowers. The male flowers (staminate) are at the top, and they wither away after they release their pollen. The female flowers, produced in large number and make up the classic sausage-shaped structure on the Cattail, are located just below the male flowers. Pollinated by the wind.
Flowering: Summer

Life Span:

  • Years to Begin Fruiting: 2 years
  • Years to Maximum Fruiting: 3-4 years
  • Years of Useful Life: No good information available as we typically harvest bulbs and eat them. Considering that the plants can be propagated from bulb division, an individual’s life span is likely irrelevant.
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The male flowers are the source of pollen… which is also edible!

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Cattail pollen pancakes… I can’t wait to try these… they are gluten-free, too!

Another couple links to recipes using cattail pollen:
http://www.greatnorthernprepper.com/foraging-cattails/
http://hungerandthirstforlife.blogspot.pt/2010/06/wild-about-cattail-pollen.html

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT

Size:

  • Narrow Leaf Cattail,  Lesser Bulrush (Typha angustifolia): 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 meters) tall
  • Cape Bulrush (Typha capensis): 3.25 feet (1 meter) tall
  • Asian species (Typha davidiana): 3.25 feet (1 meter) tall
  • Bulrush, Southern Cattail (Typha domingensis): 6-9 feet (1.8-2.7 meters) tall
  • Common Cattail, Reedmace (Typha latifolia): 5-10 feet (1.5-3 meters) tall. Will grow in water depth of 2-3 feet (0.75-1 meters).
  • Laxman’s Bulrush (Typha laxmannii): 5 feet (1.5 meters) tall
  • Dwarf Bulrush (Typha minima): 1-3 feet (30-90 cm) tall
  • Broadleaf Cumbungi (Typha orientalis): 9-13 feet (2.7-4 meters) tall
  • White Cattail (Typha x glauca): 3-9 feet (0.9-2.7 meters) tall

Roots: Rhizomes, new shoots will develop from the spreading rhizome layer
Growth Rate: Fast

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The fruit of the Cattail is composed of these soft hairs which have been used to stuff pillow, start fires, and line birds’ nests.

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Rushlights are candles made by soaking the dried pith (inner core) of Cattail (aka “Rush”) stalks in household fats. They were so common at one time that special holders were made specifically for them… these are now considered antiques.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT

Light: Prefers full sun
Shade: Does not like shade
Moisture: Wet, boggy soils to fully aquatic conditions.
pH: tolerates a very wide range of soil conditions

Special Considerations for Growing:
This is a fast growing plant. Some consider it invasive. However, at least one species is native to most parts of the world. Just be wise in where you plant this species.

Propagation:
Seed – sown just at the surface and flooded. Young plants can slowly have the water depth increased. It is much easier to propagate through division in Spring. Divide the shoots from the mother plant, and just plant any shoots that have roots attached.

Maintenance: 

  • This depends on what you are doing with it. If you have a native stand, then there is not much needed to be done.
  • However, considering how fast this grows, it makes an excellent nutrient recycler… plant a bed of Cattails at the lowest level where water exits the property. Once or twice a year, significantly cut back the stalks and leaves and use these as mulch or compost higher up in the property. The rhizomes can be harvested at this same time for food or division.

Concerns:

  • Cattails can accumulate large quantities of toxins, which make it a great water-cleaning/filter plant, but can make consumption of this plant potentially hazardous if grown in contaminated sites.
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The edible young shoots are prized in Ukraine and Russia and are known as “Cossack Asparagus”

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Photo References:

  • http://www.cattails.info/images/cattails_8yyb.jpg
  • http://www.malag.aes.oregonstate.edu/wildflowers/images/CattailFruitland_2.JPG
  • http://truepsychicsnetwork.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2013/07/cattail.jpg
  • http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_1C72BiCMjz4/TCZque1QaSI/AAAAAAAAAiY/gpT2wWJ8bVM/s1600/i+only+eat+the+boys.jpg
  • http://artemisherbals.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/cattails-cleaneds.jpg
  • http://www.gallowaywildfoods.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/reedmace-rhiz+shoots-feb.jpg
  • http://www.gallowaywildfoods.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/reedmace-rhizomes-peeled.jpg
  • http://farm1.staticflickr.com/249/526680430_51bfd8e41f_z.jpg?zz=1
  • http://2.bp.blogspot.com/_1C72BiCMjz4/TCkaSwkT2TI/AAAAAAAAAi4/yvW9Egq1DU4/s1600/cattail-flower-with-pollen.jpg
  • http://4.bp.blogspot.com/_1C72BiCMjz4/TCko_ApEkpI/AAAAAAAAAjY/QRxC_XY-gQk/s1600/cattail-pollen-pancakes-gluten-free.jpg
  • http://www.greatnorthernprepper.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/cattail-pollen.jpg
  • http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2007/05/31/garden/31graywater.span.jpg
  • http://www.dancingrabbit.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/IMG_1984.jpg
  • http://artantiquesmichigan.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/rushlight_6.jpg
  • http://www.bio.brandeis.edu/fieldbio/medicinal_plants/images/cattail_many_full.jpg