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The Daily Bucket is a place where we post and exchange our observations about what is happening in the natural world in our neighborhood. Each note about the bugs, buds, and birds around us is a record that we can refer to in the future as we try to understand the patterns of nature that are quietly unwinding around us.
A familiar sight, cattails edge ponds and wetlands and fill damp ditches across almost the entire U.S. and most of Canada. When I was a kid visiting my Michigan grandparents, I loved seeing the stalks rising like spears from the fringe of their small lake. Red-winged blackbirds often perched atop them, whistling and scolding. They've always held some romance for me, but there's some cool ecological science behind them, too.


This cattail grows in a low, marshy place near my home. The city carved out this area from development to create a storm water control area. A small pond is a few hundred feet away from this.

Cattails grow tall on long, jointless stems, with the whole plant up to nine feet tall. The alternating leaves are slender. The distinctive brown club at the top of the stem is actually densely set, tiny female flowers. Depending on species, the flower structure can be up to 12 inches long.

Their root structure is made up of rhizomes, which can interconnect densely in a colony of plants.

According to,

... the flowers are very prolific, one stalk will produce an estimated 220,000 seeds. Even with this number of seeds, cattails colonize by sending up clones from the creeping rhizomes. It has been recorded that a cattail marsh can travel up to 17 feet in a year with prime conditions through the cloning process. Colonization can happen quickly, as one new seed produces a plant, that new shoot in it's first year will send out a rhizomes for ten feet in all directions and can produce 100 clones in that first growing season.
According the the Wisconsin DNR, "Seeds remain viable in the seed bank for up to 100 years." Because it reproduces so successfully, it easily can crowd out other native species, reducing biodiversity. Controlling its spread requires active management, cutting and/or burning it out, or poisoning it through its root system.

This colony has been growing within the storm water control area for 3 or 4 years. After another couple of years, it could threaten to crowd out other species.

The good news is that fast propagation may be a bonus rather than a curse. There are TWO big benefits provided by cattail stands. One is water treatment: cattails are being used by communities for waste water treatment, among other remediation. And the other is in development of biofuels.

Water Treatment

Natural wetlands with cattails help control flooding, but they offer another important benefit, as well. Purification of waste water has been done in the U.S. at least since 1986. Now approximately 500 communities use plant colonies to treat sewage. They can also be used to treat livestock manure and other industrial wastewater. Cattail plants are able to break down toxins including mercury, nitrates, and pesticides, and they deal effectively with bacterial contaminants.

This interesting article by Dr. Isobel Heathcote provides some detail on how wetland sewage treatment works. She outlines advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages include positive aesthetics, habitat creation, and improved cost-efficiency in treatment. Disadvantages may include limited life expectancy of the created wetland, poor phosphorous removal, susceptibility to climate and disease, and the potential for a toxic-waste wetland remaining at the end of its life. Regardless, treating wastewater this way can be more effective than conventional treatments.


The cattail rhizome, the thick horizontal stems that grow just beneath the soil and help it spread so easily, is very starchy. With starch content between 40-60%, the rhizomes offer a potential source of ethanol that could produce more than 10 times per acre as compared to corn. Technologies for processing are still in development but show great promise.

Best yet, the biofuel and water treatment properties may be able to be combined. Blue Planet Green Living includes the following:

Blume suggests one of those “the-problem-is-the-solution” remedies in Alcohol Can Be a Gas. “’How about using the roads to provide the fuel for the cars that use them?” Water gathers around roadsides, allowing runoff filled with toxins like herbicides, oil and antifreeze to be carried for miles downstream. “If each county were to cultivate a 5-foot wide strip of cattail on each side of only 1000 miles of county-maintained roads, boom mowers could shred and harvest up to three crops of cattail per year, producing in theory up to 61 billion gallons of fuel (40% of the U.S gasoline consumption — without using a single acre of farmland while also thoroughly detoxifying road runoff water. Planting energy crops in the nation’s unused median strips along divided highways would generate additional billions of gallons.”


Besides being ecologically useful, the plant is edible, as well.

Some part of the plant can be used in virtually every month of the year, making this plant the perfect survival plant. In late spring the young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked as we would asparagus, later the green immature spikes can be cooked and eaten like corn on the cob. In early summer the yellow pollen produced by the yellow male spike, can be collected, sifted and mixed with other flours creating a protein rich flour. Late summer the horn shaped sprouts at the top of the root stalks can be eaten raw or cooked. These sprouts may contain up to 30% starch and sugars. The starchy core at the base of the sprouts can be prepared like a potato. In the winter the root stocks fill with starch which can be retrieved and dried into a good quality white flour, or cooked like a potato.

What diary would be complete without recipes? Here is a link to recipes. I will not vouch for these, but if you try any of them, be sure to let us know the outcome.


Indeed, what diary would be complete without a pootie picture? Here is the infamous Rory, who lives with Debbie in ME. Rory has quite the cat tail, the longest hairs more than 5 inches long.

sleeping baby

Diarist's Note: Biology was not my strong suit -- okay, honestly? Science was not -- so if you want to correct or expand on anything here, please feel free. I will welcome your comments.

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Thu Jul 05, 2012 at 08:30 AM PDT.

Also republished by Practical Survivalism and Sustainable Living.

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