While cattails provide terrific habitat, they can also get out of hand, and actually need to be managed routinely.
As spring advances, wetlands, like other habitats, will transition from brown to green. While there are a number of wetland plants that will contribute to this, none is more prevalent than the cattail.
Cattails come in 30 different flavors around the world, but for the most part, three species make up the bulk of the cattails in North America: broad-leafed, narrow-leafed and southern cattails. Of these, the broad-leafed cattail is the most widespread, native in 49 states and all Canadian provinces and the Northwest Territories and introduced in Hawaii. It is also found in Mexico, Great Britain, Eurasia, India, Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.
All three of these native species hybridize readily. They also essentially fill the same niche and have similar habitat requirements and life histories so I will refer to all three simply as cattails.
Cattails are easy to recognize. They are perennial plants like bulrushes and sedges, other common marsh plants. Unlike the hollow tubes common in the bulrushes though, cattails have long flat leaves with parallel veins. Leaves may be three to six feet long and are extremely fibrous. The central stalk of the cattail bears a seed head that is often referred to as a “cob”. On top of the seed head is a spike where pollen forms and is distributed by the wind. Each “cob” can produce from 100,000 to a quarter of a million seeds.
That heavy seed production is one reason for the success of the cattail. Each seed has bristly hairs that help it float considerable distances on the wind. Cattail populations can be found in many isolated locations though, far from the influence of the wind. It is likely that birds also inadvertently help in seed dispersal by carrying seeds stuck to their feet and feathers and “planting” them along their migration routes.
Cattails may become established by seed, but colonies are maintained by vegetative reproduction. They are strongly rhizomatous, sending out lateral shoots that create thick stands of nothing but cattails.
These thick stands are valuable for hiding and nesting cover for a wide variety of birds. Muskrats consume the cattails and use them to build feeding platforms and dens that are in turn used as resting places for waterbirds. Despite their value though, cattail marshes are often victims of too much of a good thing.
Even though they are native species, cattails have such a wide niche that they are strong competitors for just about every other species of wetland vegetation. They can quickly form monocultures of impossibly thick vegetation that impedes biodiversity and chokes out open water.
Marsh and wetland managers routinely have to control cattail invasion to maintain diversity and open water. Techniques include burning to reduce the build-up of plant debris, disturbance such as heavy disking to reduce the number of plants and chemical control to maintain areas of open water. Water level management is also a valid tool, but is often impractical because of cost or just not enough available water.
There is one more thing to know about cattails. They add more to a springtime marsh than color. Young growing cattails are a one-stop grocery for wild plant enthusiasts who appreciate their abundance. Flour-like pollen, young flowering heads, tender stem cores and starchy rhizomes can all be harvested and made into tasty dishes.
Donate part of your tax return to support wildlife in Idaho!
On the second page of the Idaho Individual Tax form 40 you have the opportunity to donate to the “Nongame Wildlife Conservation Fund”.
Check-off this box on your next return or ask your tax preparer to mark the Nongame check-off on your behalf.
If you are not from Idaho, check with your own state wildlife agency about how you can help. Many states have a similar program.
Help Idaho Wildlife
Sadly, when we traveled across the state in October, most of the vehicles we saw using the wildlife management areas did not have wildlife plates.
C'mon folks, let's help Idaho's wildlife by proudly buying and displaying a wildlife license plate on each of our vehicles!
See below for information on Idaho plates. Most states have wildlife plates so if you live outside Idaho, check with your state's wildlife department or vehicle licensing division for availability of state wildlife plates where you live.
Wildlife License Plates
Idaho Wildlife license plates provide essential funding that benefits the great diversity of native plants and wildlife that are not hunted, fished or trapped—over 10,000 species or 98% of Idaho’s species diversity. Game species that share the same habitats (such as elk, deer, antelope, sage-grouse, salmon, trout) also benefit from these specialty plates.
No state tax dollars are provided for wildlife diversity, conservation education and recreation programs. Neither are any revenues from the sale of hunting or fishing licenses spent on nongame species. Instead, these species depend on direct donations, federal grants, fundraising initiatives—and the Idaho Wildlife license plates.
Both my vehicles have Bluebird Plates. I prefer the bluebird because the nongame program gets 70 percent of the money from bluebird plates, but only 60 percent of the money from elk and trout plates - 10 percent of the money from elk plates supports wildlife disease monitoring and testing programs (to benefit the livestock industry) and 10 percent from cutthroat plates supports non-motorized boat access.
Incidentally, in 2014, the Idaho Legislature denied the Department of Fish and Game the ability to add new plates or even to change the name of the elk and cutthroat plates (very specific) to wildlife and fish plates, a move that would have allowed for changing images occasionally and generating more revenue. It would seem that they believe that we Idahoans don't want a well funded wildlife program. Go figure.
"WOW. What a phenomenal piece you wrote. You are amazing." Jennifer Jackson
That is embarrassing but actually a fairly typical response to my nature essays. Since The Best of Nature is created from the very best of 16 years of these nature essays published weekly in the Idaho Falls Post Register (online readership 70,000), it is a fine read. It covers a wide variety of topics including humorous glimpses of nature, philosophy, natural history, and conservation. Readers praise the style, breadth of subject matter and my ability to communicate complex and emotional topics in a relaxed and understandable manner.
Everyone can find something to love in this book. From teenagers to octogenarians, from the coffee shop to the school room, these nature essays are widely read and enjoyed.
Some of the essays here are my personal favorites, others seemed to strike a chord with readers. Most have an important message or lesson that will resonate with you. They are written with a goal to simultaneously entertain and educate about the wonderful workings of nature. Some will make you laugh out loud and others will bring a tear to the eye and warm your heart.
"You hit a home run with your article on, Big Questions in Nature. It should be required reading for everyone who has lost touch with nature...great job!" Joe Chapman
"We enjoyed your column, Bloom Where Planted. Some of the best writing yet. The Post Register is fortunate to have your weekly columns." Lou Griffin.
To read more and to order a copy, click here or get the Kindle version
Copies are also available at:
Barnes and Noble in Idaho Falls
Perfect Light Photo Supply
Museum of Idaho
Valley Books, Jackson Wyoming
Avocet Corner Bookstore, Bear River National Wildlife Refuge, Brigham City, Utah
Craters of the Moon National Monument Bookstore, Arco, Idaho