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Cattails are wetland plants in the genus Typha. There are eleven species in this genus, mostly native to the northern hemisphere. Typha latifolia is the most widely dispersed kind of cattail in North America. The stiff, brush-like, cylindrical flower spikes have reminded many people of a cat's tail, hence the common name. In British English, they are commonly called reedmace or bullrush, and in American English they are sometimes known as corndog grass or punks.
These wetland plants are spread by rhizomes positioned just below the surface of wet, muddy ground. Often the ground is covered with a few inches of water. Cattails are often the first plants to colonize muddy soil. When they colonize a new area, they are a very important part of converting underwater soil to marshland, which may eventually become dry land. Cattails also spread by seed, which can be widely dispersed, especially by birds.
Cattails grow from three to more than 20 feet (one to seven meters) tall, although the average is about ten feet (three meters). They have long, strap-like leaves about one inch (two and a half centimeters) wide that look a bit like oversized blades of grass. They often grow along lake edges or in wet ditches as well as in marshland, and the dense colonies they form can make them a nuisance in managed wetlands.
In some areas, cattails are invasive and are treated as weeds. Small colonies of cattails are managed by hand. Cattails can be pulled out quite easily when the new growth is about six inches (15 centimeters) above the surface of the water. Cutting off the green shoot as soon as it appears above water is also effective. Large colonies of cattails are usually controlled with herbicides, but care must be taken so as to avoid contaminating the water.
Many parts of cattail plants are edible, not only to birds and animals but also for humans. The rhizomes are fibrous and starchy, and are usually harvested in the winter and cooked like potatoes. The lateral underground stems are also edible. The base of the leaves can even be eaten raw, if it is cut in the late spring, while it is still tender. The immature flower spike is edible in early summer and is prepared like corn on the cob. Pollen from the mature flower spike can be used to thicken liquids and supplement flour.
The down from cattails is useful as tinder and as stuffing for clothing and pillows. It has even been used to stuff life vests. Leaves are useful to weave baskets and mats, and the stems can be used to make glue.