What Is a Water Chestnut?

This question came up on a recent episode of Every Little Thing, and while I have eaten water chestnuts on numerous occasions, I realized that I have never really considered what they were or where they came from. Thanks to the folks at ELT, I am better informed. So, why not spread the wealth?

Chinese water chestnut (not to be confused with Trapa natans, which is also commonly known as water chestnut) is in the family Cyperaceae – the sedge family. Known botanically as Eleocharis dulcis, it is a member of a sizable genus collectively referred to as the spikerushes or spikesedges. Its distribution is quite expansive, spanning sections of Australia, tropical Africa, several countries in Asia, as well as islands in the Pacific and Indian oceans. It is commonly cultivated in regions outside of its native range, including in North America as a novelty crop.

Eleocharis dulcis is a perennial, aquatic plant that grows in marshes, bogs, and the margins of other wetland and riparian areas in tropical and subtropical climates. Individual plants are clumps of tall, stiff, upright, leafless stems that can grow to over one meter tall. An infloresence is borne at the tops of stems and is a short, cylindrical cluster of small, yellow-brown florets. Clumps of stems are connected via rhizomes, and in this manner dense colonies can be formed. Rhizomes also terminate in corms, which are the edible portion of E. dulcis and the part of the plant that we refer to as water chestnuts.

Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) growing in a bog garden – photo credit: flickr/techieoldfox

Corms are underground storage organs. They are the bases of stems that have become thick and swollen with starch. They are often covered in papery scales – which are the remnants of leaves – that help protect the corm from being damaged or drying out. Buds on the top of the corm form shoots; adventitious roots form on the bottom of the corm. Tubers, which are also modified stems and underground storage organs, differ from corms in that they have growing points at various locations along their surface rather than a single growing point at the top.

Common misconceptions are that water chestnuts are nuts or roots. They are neither. They are corms, or in other words, they are modified stem bases. Apart from that, they are vegetables. Curiously, they are vegetables from a plant family that does not produce much in the way of food for humans. Consider that the next time you eat them. You are eating a sedge.

Corm of Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis), the edible portion of the plant – photo credit: flickr/sclereid0309

Chinese water chestnuts can be prepared in many ways, both raw and cooked. I have only had them in stir fries, but they can also be used in salads and soups or ground into flour to make water chestnut cakes. Interestingly, even when they are cooked they remain crisp. This has something to due with the special properties of their cell walls.

As an agricultural crop they are often grown in paddies in rotation with rice. With a few preparations they can also be grown at home alongside your other vegetables. Further information and instruction can be found at various locations online including Permaculture Research Institute, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Plants for a Future.

Having only eaten water chestnuts from a can, I am anxious to try fresh, raw water chestnuts. Apparently they are available at certain Asian markets. When I get my hands on some, I will let you know what I think. Follow me on Twitter or Facebook for further updates.

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What are your favorite ways to eat Chinese water chestnuts? Let us know in the comment section below.

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Love and Hate – The Story of Purple Loosestrife

In the early 1800’s, seeds of purple loosestrife found their way to North America. They arrived from Europe several times by various means – accidentally embedded in the ballast of ships, inadvertently tucked in sheep’s wool, and purposely carried in the hands of humans. Native to much of Europe and parts of Asia and commonly found growing in wetlands and other riparian areas, purple loosestrife’s appealing spikes of magenta flowers, sturdy, upright growth habit, and ease of propagation made it a prized ornamental; its abundant nectar made it a favorite of beekeepers.

During its first 150 years or so in North America, purple loosestrife became naturalized in ditches, wet meadows, and the banks of streams, rivers, lakes, and ponds while also enjoying a place in our gardens. Concern about its spread was raised in the first half of the twentieth century, but it wasn’t until the 1980’s after an extensive survey was done and a special report was issued by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service that attitudes about purple loosestrife shifted dramatically. At that point, it was no longer a benign invader and welcome garden companion. It was, instead, a biological menace that needed to be destroyed.

Lytrhrum salicaria – commonly known as purple loosestrife, spiked willow-herb, long purples, rainbow weed, etc. – is an herbaceous perennial in the family Lythraceae. It reaches up to two meters tall; has square or angular stems with lance-shaped, stalkless leaves up to ten centimeters long; and ends in dense, towering spikes of pink-purple, 5-7 petaled flowers. The flowers attract a wide variety of pollinating insects – mostly bees – and afterwards produce small capsules full of tiny, red-brown seeds. Charles Darwin thoroughly studied the flowers of purple loosestrife; he was intrigued by the plant for many reasons, including its heterostyly (a topic for another post).

Lythrum salicaria (purple loosestrife) – image credit: wikimedia commons

Purple loosestrife seeds remain viable for up to 20 years and are transported by wind, water, and in mud stuck to the feet of birds. Apart from seeds, populations expand clonally as root crowns grow larger each year and produce increasingly more stems. Broken stem pieces also take root in mud, creating new plants. Purple loosestrife’s ability to form expansive populations in a quick manner, pushing other plants aside and forming what appears to be a dense monoculture, is part of the reason it has earned itself a place among the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of 100 World’s Worst Invasive Alien Species.

But is this ranking justified? In a paper published in Biological Invasions in 2010, Claude Lavoie compares news reports about purple loosestrife around the turn of the century with data presented in scientific papers and finds that the reports largely exaggerate the evidence. Purple loosestrife was being accused of all manner of crimes against nature and was being condemned before there was sound evidence to justify such actions.

It began with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s special report published in 1987. According to Lavoie, “a long list of the impacts of the species on wetland flora and fauna [was] presented,” but the claims were not supported by observational or experimental data – “the impacts [were] only suspected.” Regardless, wetland managers began campaigns against purple loosestrife in order to convince the public that it was a Beautiful Killer. News outlets were quick to spread the word about this “killer” plant. When biological control programs began in the 1990’s, news outlets reported on their success. Little empirical evidence had been published on either topic, and debates about purple loosestrife’s impacts remained unsettled in the scientific community.

The flowers of purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Around this time, five reviews were published examining the evidence against purple loosestrife. Lavoie reports that all but one of them “rely on a relatively high number of sources that have not been published in peer-reviewed journals.” After examining the reviews, Lavoie concludes: “although each review provided valuable information on purple loosestrife, most were somewhat biased and relied on a substantial amount of information that was anecdotal or not screened by reviewers during a formal evaluation process. Only one review was impartial, and this one painted an inconclusive picture of the species.”

Research has continued regarding the impacts of purple loosestrife, and so Lavoie examined 34 studies that were published during the 2000’s in search of conclusive evidence that the plant is as destructive to wetlands and wildlife as has been claimed. Upon examination he concludes that “stating that this plant has ‘large negative impacts’ on wetlands is probably exaggerated.” The most common accusation – that purple loosestrife crowds out native plants and forms a monoculture – “is controversial and has not been observed in nature (with maybe one exception).” Lavoie finds that there is “certainly no evidence that purple loosestrife ‘kills wetlands’ or ‘creates biological deserts,'” and “there are no published studies [in peer-reviewed journals] demonstrating that purple loosestrife has an impact on waterfowl or fishes.” All other negative claims against purple loosestrife “have not been the object of a study,” except for its impact on amphibians, which had at that time only been tested on two species, one “reacting negatively.” Certain claims – such as purple loosestrife’s impact on wetland hydrology – should be studied more in depth “considering the apparent public consensus on the detrimental effects of purple loosestrife” on wetland ecosystems.

Lavoie agrees that it is reasonable to control purple loosestrife when the intention is to reduce additional pressures on an ecosystem that is already highly threatened. However, he warns that “focusing on purple loosestrife instead of on other invasive species or on wetland losses to agriculture or urban sprawl could divert the attention of environmental managers from more urgent protection needs.” There is mounting evidence that purple loosestrife invasions are disturbance-dependent and are “an indicator of anthropogenic disturbances.” In order to protect our wetlands, we must first protect them against undue disturbance. Lavoie supports using the Precautionary Principle when dealing with introduced species; however, he finds the approach “much more valuable for newcomers than for invaders coexisting with native species for more than a century.”

A field of purple loosestrife in Massachusetts – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Purple loosestrife has found its way to nearly every state in America and most of the Canadian provinces. Peter Del Tredici writes in Wild Urban Plants of the Northeast, “Conservationists despise purple loosestrife, despite its beauty, and it is listed as an invasive species in most of the states where it grows.” By listing a plant as a noxious weed, landowners are obligated to remove it. Care must be taken though, as removal of purple loosestrife can result in a secondary invasion by noxious weeds with an even worse track record, such as common reed or reed canary grass. “Hardly a gain from the biodiversity point of view,” quips Lavoie.

Claude Lavoie’s paper and the papers he references are definitely worth reading. It is important that we continue to study purple loosestrife and species like it in order to fully understand the impact that introduced species are having on natural areas, especially since it is unlikely that we will ever completely eliminate them. On that note, I’ll leave you with this passage from The Book of Swamp and Bog by John Eastman:

The situation is easy for environmentalists to deplore. This plant, like few others, stirs our alien prejudice. Our native cattails, for example, are almost as rudely aggressive and competitive in many wetland areas as purple loosestrife. Yet, because cattails obvioulsy ‘belong here,’ they seldom evoke the same outraged feelings against their existence. … With the spread of purple loosestrife, we have new opportunities to witness the phases of an ever-recurring ecological process. We can watch it affect, change, adapt, and refit both its own elements and those of invaded communities into new arrangements of energy efficiency. The point is that we might as well study this process rather than simply deplore it; we have few alternatives.

Campaigns Against Invasive Species, part two

Happy American Wetlands Month!

One of the biggest threats to wetland ecosystems is, of course, invasive species. In last week’s post I shared a selection of videos that were produced by a variety of organizations to inform the public about invasive species. Many such videos specifically address invasives in wetlands and waterways. Here are a few of those videos.

Invasive Species of Idaho reminds you to “Clean, Drain, Dry” to avoid transporting aquatic hitchhikers:

Purple loosestrife is a “very wicked plant:”

Commander Ben vs. the Saltcedar Bandits:

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality urges hunters not to use Phragmites australis to make duck blinds:

More information about Phragmites by National Geographic:

Texas Parks and Wildlife and the Attack of the Zebra Mussels:

The story of Eurasian milfoil told by students at George Williams College:

Water hyacinth – another “very wicked plant”:

Water hyacinth invasion in Africa:

Attack of the Killer Algae by TED-Ed:

Beavers and Water Lilies – An Introduction to Zoochory

Beavers are classic examples of ecosystem engineers. It is difficult to think of an animal – apart from humans – whose day-to-day activities have more impact on the landscape than beavers. Their dam building activities create wetlands that are used by numerous other species, and their selective harvesting of preferred trees affects species composition in riparian areas. And that’s just the start. Their extensive evolutionary history and once widespread distribution has made them major players in the landscape for millions of years.

Today, the beaver family (Castoridae) consists of just two extant species: Castor fiber (native to Eurasia) and Castor canadensis (native to North America). Both species were hunted by humans to the brink of extinction but, thanks to conservation efforts, enjoy stable populations despite having been eliminated from much of their historical ranges. Before the arrival of Europeans, North American beavers are estimated to have been anywhere from 60 million to 400 million strong. Extensive trapping reduced the population to less than half a million. Today, 10 million or more make their homes in rivers, streams, and wetlands across the continent.

North American beaver (Castor canadensis) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

North American beaver (Castor canadensis) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Beavers are herbivores, and they harvest trees and shrubs to build dams and lodges. Their interactions with plants are legion, and so what better way to introduce the concept of animal-mediated seed dispersal than beavers. Plants have several strategies for moving their seeds around. Wind and gravity are popular approaches, and water is commonly used by plants both aquatic and terrestrial. Partnering with animals, however, is by far the most compelling method. This strategy is called zoochory.

Zoochory has many facets. Two major distinctions are epizoochory and endozoochory. In epizoochory, seeds become attached in some form or fashion to the outside of an animal. The animal unwittingly picks up, transports, and deposits the seeds. The fruits of such seeds are equipped with hooks, spines, barbs, or stiff hairs that help facilitate attachment to an animal’s fur, feathers, or skin. A well known example of this is the genus Arctium. Commonly known as burdock, the fruits in this genus are called burs – essentially small, round balls covered in a series of hooks. Anyone who has walked through – or has had a pet walk through – a patch of burdocks with mature seed heads knows what a nuisance these plants can be. But their strategy is effective.

The burs of Arctium - photo credit: wikimedia commons

The burs of Arctium – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Endozoochory is less passive. Seeds that are dispersed this way are usually surrounded by fleshy, nutritious fruits desired by animals. The fruits are consumed, and the undigested seeds exit out the other end of the animal with a bit of fertilizer. Certain seeds require passage through an animal’s gut in order to germinate, relying on chemicals produced during the digestion process to help break dormancy. Other seeds contain mild laxatives in their seed coats, resulting in an unscathed passage through the animal and a quick deposit. Some plants have developed mutualistic relationships with specific groups of animals regarding seed dispersal by frugivory. When these animal species disappear, the plants are left without the means to disperse their seeds, which threatens their future survival.

Beavers rely on woody vegetation to get them through the winter, but in warmer months, when herbaceous aquatic vegetation is abundant, such plants become their preferred food source. Water lilies are one of their favorite foods, and through both consumption of the water lilies and construction of wetland habitats, beavers help support water lily populations. This is how John Eastman puts it in The Book of Swamp and Bog: “Beavers relish [water lilies], sometimes storing the rhizomes. Their damming activities create water lily habitat, and they widely disperse the plants by dropping rhizome fragments hither and yon.”

Fragrant water lily (Nympaea odorata) - photo credit: wikimedia commons

Fragrant water lily (Nymphaea odorata) – photo credit: wikimedia commons

The seeds of water lilies (plants in the family Nymphaceae) are generally dispersed by water. Most species (except those in the genera Nuphar and Barclaya) have a fleshy growth around their seeds called an aril that helps them float. Over time the aril becomes waterlogged and begins to disintegrate. At that point, the seed sinks to the bottom of the lake or pond where it germinates in the sediment. The seeds are also eaten by birds and aquatic animals, including beavers. The aril is digestible, but the seed is not.

In her book, Once They Were Hats, Frances Backhouse writes about the relationship between beavers and water lilies. She visits a lake where beavers had long been absent, but were later reintroduced. She noted changes in the vegetation due to beaver activity – water lilies being only one of many plant species impacted.

Every year in late summer, the beavers devoured the seed capsules [of water lilies], digested their soft outer rinds and excreted the ripe undamaged seeds into the lake. Meanwhile, as they dredged mud from the botom of the lake for their construction projects, they were unintentionally preparing the seed bed. Seeing the lilies reminded me that beavers also inadvertantly propagate willows and certain other woody plants. When beavers imbed uneaten sticks into dams or lodges or leave them lying on moist soil, the cuttings sometimes sprout roots and grow.

Other facets of zoochory include animals hoarding fruits and seeds to be eaten later and then not getting back to them, or seeds producing fleshy growths that ants love called elaiosomes, resulting in seed dispersal by ants. Animals and plants are constantly interacting in so many ways. Zoochory is just one way plants use animals and animals use plants, passively or otherwise. These relationships have a long history, and each one of them is worth exploring and celebrating.

Tiny Plants: Duckweeds

Obviously, a series about tiny plants must begin with duckweeds – a group of aquatic plants that holds records in a number of categories including smallest flowering plants, smallest vascular plants, and smallest fruits. They are so small, in fact, that they don’t even have true stems or leaves, but rather are composed of undifferentiated vegetative tissue known as a thallus. Some species have one or a few tiny rootlets; others form no roots at all. However, what they lack in their hyper-diminutive size, they make up for in their ability to form massive colonies, creating dense mats that can take up serious square footage in a pond or lake. Depending on the species present, a single square yard of a duckweed colony can contain hundreds of thousands of individual plants.

Five genera make up the duckweed subfamily (Lemnoideae): Spirodela, Lemna, Landoltia, Wolffia, and Wolffiella. This group used to be considered the family Lemnaceae, but has since been placed in Araceae – the arum family. While they are considered flowering plants, not all species of duckweeds produce flowers, and those that do, do so only rarely. They mainly reproduce asexually through a process called budding, in which growth occurs at the base of the thallus (or frond) and eventually splits off from the parent plant. This process happens fairly quickly, which is why duckweeds are able to create substantial colonies.

 

Duckweed mats form atop the still waters of lakes and ponds, but can also form in very slow moving rivers and streams. Their presence is an indicator of high levels of minerals and nutrients, which is why they are commonly seen in agricultural and industrial wastewater ponds. Nutrients are absorbed through the underside of the thallus, so the rootlets of duckweeds likely function more for stabilization than for nutrient uptake. As duckweed mats expand and grow dense, they shade the environments below them. John Eastman writes about this phenomenon in The Book of Swamp and Bog: “Thick blankets of duckweed can shade pond bottoms, preventing adequate photosynthesis and making life difficult or impossible for submersed plants and animals…however, this is often a problem of only intermittent duration.” One potential benefit of such dense mats is that they can kill off mosquito larvae. Eastman points out that for this to be the case, the duckweed may need to be accompanied by other surface dwelling plants in order to create dense enough shade.

duckweed 1

Duckweeds overwinter by forming turions, small buds that act as storage organs. Eastman explains the process:

These tiny, kidney-shaped buds detach and immediately sink to the bottom, where they remain all winter. In the spring, each turion expels a gas bubble, which causes it to rise to the surface, where it rapidly develops into a new duckweed thallus. Turion formation requires a combination of bright sunlight and high water temperature.

Duckweeds colonize new areas either by moving downstream (if they have that option) or by finding themselves attached to the fur, feathers, or feet of animals that unwittingly transport them. The common name, duckweed, is likely derived from the fact that it is a major source of food for waterfowl. It is high in protein and rich in nutrients, especially when you factor in all the tiny critters growing on and among it. Muskrats and beavers occasionally eat duckweeds as well. Despite losses from herbivory by these creatures, being made mobile by their moving bodies is a major boon.

A collection of various duckweed species - photo credit: wikimedia commons

A collection of various duckweed species – photo credit: wikimedia commons

Duckweeds are also consumed by various species of fish, which is why they are commonly used as a food source in aquaculture. Frogs and other amphibians as well as various aquatic insects and microinvertebrates also consume duckweeds. The diversity of small animals and protists that use duckweeds and the environments they help create is incredible. Eastman writes:

Duckweed mats host a large variety of small fauna that feed, lay eggs, or shelter amid the plants. Many of them secure themselves to the thallus rootlets or undersides, where they snare and capture passing food organisms or particles. Protozoans, rotifers, insect larvae, and crustaceans are often abundant.

Humans have also been known to eat duckweeds. Duckweed farming is not a simple procedure, but a highly nutritious food source is the result when it can be done. A simpler alternative is to use the harvest as animal feed. Duckweeds are also used in bioremediation and are being considered as a source of biofuel.

Depending on the species, an individual duckweed can vary in width from 10 millimeters to less than 1 millimeter. They truly are tiny wonders of the plant world, and it is worth getting down to their level for a closer look (hand lens recommended).

Additional Resources

Field Trip: Bruneau Dunes State Park

One of the aims of American Wetlands Month is to encourage people to get out and visit nearby wetlands. I accepted this challenge by visiting the small lakes and marshes of Bruneau Dunes State Park which is located about 20 miles south of Mountain Home, Idaho (or, 70 miles from my house).

The park is known for its enormous sand dunes, claiming the tallest single-structured sand dune in North America which measures about 470 feet. The dunes began forming about 15,000 years ago during the Bonneville Flood. After the flood receded, the dunes continued to grow due to their unique location – a basin in which strong winds approach from both the northwest and the southeast, carrying sand from the surrounding steppes and keeping the dunes in place.

Two small lakes and a marsh are found nestled among the dunes, and the Snake River flows just north of the park. Apart from the dunes and the wetlands, the park also includes desert and prairie habitats and is situated in an extensive conservation area called Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey. If that’s not enough, Bruneau Dunes State Park is home to a public observatory, where visitors can view the night sky and learn more about the stars and our place in the universe.

A marshy entrance to Dunes Lake

A marshy entrance to Dunes Lake

Climbing the sand dunes (and, if you’re up for it, sledding down them) is understandably a popular activity at the park. I spent a decent amount of time on top of the dunes, partly because the view was great and because the mosquitoes seemed to be absent up there. Yes, when visiting a wetland, you are advised to carry mosquito repellent, otherwise the cloud of mosquitoes that will undoubtedly surround you will make for an unpleasant experience. They will also make it difficult to stand still long enough to take a decent picture.

On top of a small dune looking across lake to large dune.

On top of small dune looking across lake to large dune

On top of large dune looking across lake to small dune.

On top of large dune looking across lake to small dune

Traversing the spine of a brontosauras (aka sand dune).

Traversing the spine of a brontosaurus (a.k.a. sand dune)

On top of the sand dune looking down at the lake and marsh.

On top of sand dune looking down at the lake and marsh

The marshes and shores around the lakes were populated with numerous wetland plants, including swamp milkweed (Aesclepias incarnata), duckweed (Lemna minuta), cattails (Typha sp.), and various rushes, sedges, and grasses. Native shrubs were also present, however the dominant woody plants were (unfortunately) introduced species: Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) and saltcedar (Tamarix chinenesis).

An entrance to the marsh

An entrance to the marsh

Flowers of bullrush (Schoenoplectus sp.)

Flowers of bulrush (Schoenoplectus sp.)

Russian olive (Eleagnus angustifolia)

Russian olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia)

Saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis)

Saltcedar (Tamarix chinensis)

Despite being there to explore and celebrate the wetland, the plants in the adjacent area (which appeared to be growing in almost 100% sand) continued to draw me away. Some I recognized easily, while others I could only identify to genus or couldn’t identify at all. Some notable observations included low lupine (Lupinus pusillus), sand-dune penstemon (Penstemon acuminatus), pale evening primrose (Oenothera pallida), and species in the genera Astragalus, Erigeron, and Eriogonum. Two bunchgrasses were particularly common throughout the area: Indian ricegrass (Achnatherum hymenoides) and needle and thread grass (Hesperostipa comata).

All of these plants are worthy of being photographed; however, the wind makes that difficult to do. Idaho is a windy state, and an area composed of wind-formed sand dunes is particularly windy. Between swarms of mosquitoes and consistent wind, capturing decent photos was a challenge. Aside from those minor nuissances, I had a very enjoyable time and hope to visit again soon.

Phacelia (Phacelia hastata)

Silverleaf phacelia (Phacelia hastata)

Nakedstem sunray (Enceliopsis nudicaulis)

Nakedstem sunray (Enceliopsis nudicaulis)

Have you visited a wetland this month? Or do you plan to? Share your adventures in the comments section below.

Ethnobotany: Cattails

“If you ever eat cattails, be sure to cook them well, otherwise the fibers are tough and they take more chewing to get the starchy food from them than they are worth. However, they taste like potatoes after you have been eating them for a couple weeks, and to my way of thinking are extremely good.”  – Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George

franz

Illustration by Franz Anthony (www.franzanth.com)

Ask anyone to list plants commonly found in American wetlands, and you can guarantee that cattails will make the list nearly every time. Cattails are widespread throughout the Northern Hemisphere. They are so successful, that it is hard to picture a wetland without them. In her book, Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer discusses this well known association:

Cattails grow in nearly all types of wetlands, wherever there is adequate sun, plentiful nutrients, and soggy ground. Midway between land and water, freshwater marshes are among the most highly productive ecosystems on earth, rivaling the tropical rainforest. People valued the supermarket of the swamp for the cattails, but also as a rich source of fish and game. Fish spawn in the shallows; frogs and salamanders abound. Waterfowl nest here in the safety of the dense sward, and migratory birds seek out cattail marshes for sanctuary on their journeys.

The two most abundant species of cattails in North America are Typha latifolia (common cattail) and Typha angustifolia (narrow leaf cattail). T. angustifolia may have been introduced from Europe. The two species also hybridize to form Typha x glauca. There are about 30 species in the genus Typha, and they share the family Typhaceae with just one other genus. The common names for cattail are nearly as abundant as the plant itself: candlewick, water sausage, corn dog plant, cossack asparagus, reedmace, nailrod, cumbungi, etc., etc.

Cattails have long, upright, blade-like leaves. As they approach the base of the plant, the leaves wrap around each other to form a tight bundle with no apparent stem. As Kimmerer puts it, this arrangement enables the plants to “withstand wind and wave action” because “the collective is strong.” Flowers appear on a tall stalk that reaches up towards the tops of the leaves. The inflorescence is composed of hundreds of separate male and female flowers. Male flowers are produced at the top of the stalk and female flowers are found directly below them. In the spring, the male flowers dump pollen down onto the female flowers, and wind carries excess pollen to nearby plants, producing what looks like yellow smoke.

After pollination, the male flowers fade away, leaving the female flowers to mature into a seed head. Just like the flowers, the seeds are small and held tightly together, maintaining the familiar sausage shape. Each seed has a tuft of “hair” attached to it to aid in wind dispersal. In The Book of Swamp and Bog, John Eastman writes about the abundant seeds (“an estimated average of 220,000 seeds per spike”) of cattail: “A quick experiment, one that Thoreau delighted to perform, demonstrates how tightly the dry seeds are packed in the spike – pull out a small tuft and watch it immediately expand to fill your hand with a downy mass.”

cattails bunch

cattail fluff

Because cattails spread so readily via rhizomes, prolific airborne seeds mostly serve to colonize new sites, away from the thick mass of already established cattails. The ability to dominate vast expanses of shoreline gives cattails an invasive quality that often results in attempts at removal. Various human activities may be aiding their success. Regardless, they provide food and habitat to numerous species of insects, spiders, birds, and mammals. A cattail marsh may not be diverse plant-wise, but it is teeming with all sorts of other life.

Ethnobotanically speaking, it is hard to find many other species that have as many human uses as cattails. For starters, nearly every part of the plant is edible at some point during the year. The rhizomes can be consumed year-round but are best from fall to early spring. They can be roasted, boiled, grated, ground, or dried and milled into flour. Starch collected from pounding and boiling the rhizomes can be used as a thickener. In the spring, young shoots emerging from the rhizomes and the tender core of the leaf bundles can be eaten raw or cooked and taste similar to cucumber. Young flower stalks can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob and taste similar to artichoke. Pollen, which is high in protein, can be mixed with flour and used to make pancakes and baked goods, among other things. The seeds can be ground into flour or pressed to produce cooking oil.

Cattail leaves can be used to make cords, mats, baskets, thatch, and many other things. Kimmerer writes about the excellent wigwam walls and sleeping mats that weaved cattail leaves make:

The cattails have made a suburb material for shelter in leaves that are long, water-repellent, and packed with closed-cell foam for insulation. … In dry weather, the leaves shrink apart from one another and let the breeze waft between them for ventilation. When the rains come, they swell and close the gap, making the [wall] waterproof. Cattails also make fine sleeping mats. The wax keeps away moisture from the ground and the aerenchyma provide cushioning and insulation.

The fluffy seeds make great tinder for starting fires, as well as excellent insulation and pillow and mattress stuffing. The dry flower stalks can be dipped in fat, lit on fire, and used as a torch. Native Americans used crushed rhizomes as a poultice to treat burns, cuts, sores, etc. A clear gel is found between the tightly bound leaves of cattail. Kimmerer writes, “The cattails make the gel as a defense against microbes and to keep the leaf bases moist when water levels drop.” The gel can be used like aloe vera gel to soothe sunburned skin.

Eastman rattles off a number of commercial uses for cattail: “Flour and cornstarch from rhizomes, ethyl alcohol from the fermented flour, burlap and caulking from rhizome fibers, adhesive from the stems, insulation from the downy spikes, oil from the seeds, rayon from cattail pulp, …” To conclude his section on cattails he writes, “With cattails present, one need not starve, freeze, remain untreated for injury, or want for playthings.”

Additional Resources: