Broadleaf Cattail

Broadleaf Cattail
© Larry Allain, Photo courtesy of Larry Allain, National Wetland Research Center, USGS.

Common Name(s):

Broadleaf Cattail
Common Cattail

Scientific Name:

Typha latifolia L.

Scientific Name Synonyms:

Massula latifolia (L.) Dulac.




Life Span: Perennial

Origin: Native

Season: N/A

Growth Characteristics: Broadleaf cattail is an erect, rhizomatous, semiaquatic or aquatic, perennial herb. The stout rhizomes, which are located 3 to 4 inches below the soil surface, grow up to 27 inches in length and are typically 0.2 to 1.2 inches in diameter.

Broadleaf cattail reproduces sexually and asexually. Vegetative reproduction occurs through an extensive rhizome system and is responsible for the maintenance and expansion of existing stands. Sexual reproduction via seed dispersal and seedling establishment is responsible for invasion of new areas.

Broadleaf cattail seeds are capable of germinating immediately after shedding under favorable conditions, but require moist or wet substrates, warm temperatures, low oxygen concentrations, and long day-short night exposures for germination to occur. Light, temperature, and oxygen requirements for germination are best met in shallow water or on moist mudflats in vegetation-free areas. Within established broadleaf cattail stands, seedlings are practically nonexistent. This is because existing vegetative cover greatly reduces light and temperature for germination, and because cattail leaves and stems may produce allelopathic inhibitors.

Seedhead: Plants are monoecious, with each flower stalk being topped by two sets of minute flowers densely packed into a cylindrical inflorescence. Yellowish male (staminate) flowers are located at the top of the inflorescence and greenish female (pistillate) flowers are located underneath. In this species, the staminate and pistillate flowers are not separated by a gap. Flowers bloom in summer and after bloom the male flowers rapidly disperse, leaving a naked stalk tip. The pollinated female flowers turn brown as the seeds mature, forming the familiar cylindrical, sausage-like, cattail fruiting spike (to 9” long in this species).

Broadleaf cattail is a prolific producer of minute seeds. Each spike may contain 117,000 to 268,000 seeds. At maturity, the spike bursts under dry conditions, releasing the fruits. Each fruit has bristly hairs that aid in wind dispersal. When the fruit comes in contact with water, the pericarp opens rapidly, releasing the seed, which then sinks. In wet weather the fruits often fall to the ground in dense mats.

Leaves: Broadleaf cattail has 12-16 narrow, upright, sword-like, mostly basal green leaves. The leaves are 3/8 – 5/8 inch wide and up to 7 feet long. Leaves are alternate, long, linear, flat and sheathing. Leaf sheaths are open, cylindrical and without auricles.

Stems: Each vegetative shoot is 0.3 to 0.6 inch wide and 3 to 10 feet tall. It is stiff, unbranched, and usually rises equal to slightly less than the height of the leaves.

Ecological Adaptions:

Broadleaf cattail is found in wet meadows, marshes, fens, pond and lake margins, roadside ditches, irrigation canals, oxbow lakes, and backwater areas of rivers and streams at elevations from 4,200 – 9,600 feet. It is tolerant of continuous inundation and seasonal drawdowns but is generally restricted to areas where the water depth never exceeds about 2.6 feet. It grows mostly in fresh water but also occurs in slightly brackish marshes. Along water depth gradients, broadleaf cattail often grows upslope of bulrush or open water but downslope of common reed (Phragmites australis), reed canarygrass (Phalaris arundinacea), and willow (Salix spp.). Broadleaf cattail forms dense monoculture communities in shallow, freshwater marshes and ponds It also occurs as a co-dominant species in mixed stands with bulrush and maidencane. When broadleaf cattail and narrow-leaved cattail co-occur, they are frequently segregated by water depth, with broadleaf cattail found in shallow water and narrow-leaved cattail in deep water.

Soils: Broadleaf cattail is adapted to coarse-fine textured, anaerobic soils. It grows just about anywhere that soil remains wet, saturated, or flooded most of the growing season. Cattail stands produce enormous quantities of litter. Established stands tend to grow on soils with high amounts of organic matter. Broadleaf cattail may also grow on fine-textured mineral soils, but the soils often have organic matter incorporated into at least the surface horizons.

Associated Species: Sedges, hardstem bulrush, common reed, tall wheatgrass, inland saltgrass and alkali cordgrass.

Uses and Management:

Broadleaf cattail is not rated highly as forage. Animals rarely graze broadleaf cattail unless upland forage becomes scarce. Broadleaf Cattail rhizomes and basal portions are an important food of muskrat, nutria, and geese. For ducks, however, broadleaf cattail is of little value as food or cover. The seeds are too small to be an important bird food source, bur are eaten by a few species, mainly the green-winged teal, semipalmated sandpiper, and Canada goose, snow goose, and tule goose. Broadleaf cattail provides an excellent hut building material for muskrat. Deer sometimes use broadleaf cattail for hiding cover.

Broadleaf cattail is considered a weed on some irrigated agricultural lands and in managed waterfowl production areas. On agricultural lands it invades irrigation canals, farm ponds, and drainage ditches, impeding water flow and increasing siltation. In marshes managed for waterfowl, it often forms dense stands which provide poor nesting habitat. Control measures include: (1) drawdown to reduce cattail and allow the establishment of species preferred by waterfowl, (2) cutting plants below the soil or water surface, (3) crushing, which immediately opens up stands making the surface water available to ducks, (4) spraying with herbicides, (5) burning, and (6) cutting, crushing, spraying, or burning in combination with water level manipulation. For best results treatment should take place when carbohydrate reserves are at a minimum. This period, when broadleaf cattail is most susceptible to injury, occurs when the pistillate and staminate portions of the spike are lime green and dark green, respectively. Furthermore, because a portion of cattail leaves must protrude above the water surface for normal gas exchange to take place, regrowth following control measures is effectively eliminated if plants are kept completely submerged. On marshes where water levels can be manipulated, a combination of drawdown followed by the control treatment and rapid reflooding results in the greatest cattail mortality.

Cattail leaves and stems have been used around the world as bedding, thatching, and matting, and in the manufacture of baskets, boats and rafts, shoes, ropes, and paper. In recent years, cattail has been proposed as a biomass crop for renewable energy.

Native Americans used broadleaf cattail as food. Rhizomes were dried and ground into flour or eaten as cooked vegetables; young stems were eaten raw or cooked; and immature fruiting spikes were eaten after roasting. The leaves were woven for matting and the "soft down" from ripe fruiting heads was used as padding and in diapers.