Question: What can you tell me about cattails? Are they good or bad? I have some in my pond.
Answer: In this case, cattails can be both “good” or “bad” – depending on your point of view.
Some people believe cattails are part of a more natural pond system. Cattails get their name from the fuzzy, elongated seed heads that remind some of the tails of cats. I like cats, so this plant has always been a favorite.
Cattails can provide valuable food resources and shelter for wildlife. Many wetland birds, such as red-winged blackbirds and marsh wrens, build their nests in dense cattail stands. Many insects live in and near stands of cattail and some species of fish may spawn among cattails.
Native Americans used cattails for food and harvested the pollen to make flour for bread, and also to thicken soups.
Cattail seed heads made fine torches, and the dried seed fluff was a fine firestarter. They also made baskets from the foliage. During World War II, cattail “fluff” was used as filling for life jackets and pillows.
There is some confusion about the types of cattails in our region and how invasive they can be. The native broad-leafed cattail is the most common – but can also take over some pond and wetland areas. According to the University of Pennsylvania, the invasive narrow-leafed cattail is originally native to Europe and Africa and can now be found in almost every U.S. state. To complicate matters, there are crosses between broad-leaved and the narrow-leaved cattail that are also invasive.
Generally, it is a good thing to have some native cattails – the broad-leaved cattail – in a pond or ditch. They prevent soil erosion of the pond or ditch bank, and also filter runoff of fertilizer and pesticides from lawns and fields.
If the current population of cattails begin to take over a pond to the detriment of other plant and animal species, one can use either mechanical or chemical methods of control.
One can dig or dredge to remove the extensive root system of the cattails when water levels are low, either by drawing down the pond or during drought periods. For smaller areas, cut the cattails in the early spring so that the hollow cut stems are below water level. This essentially “drowns” the plants.
There are several herbicides that can be sprayed on cattails to kill them, including forms of glyphosate.
In my opinion, I would use a professional licensed pond applicator to apply pesticides only if other methods have not worked, especially considering the current disagreement and controversy over the safety of products containing glyphosate.
Experts say it is sometimes very difficult to distinguish between the native and narrow-leaved crosses. Here is a link to a publication that discusses this issue – www.docs.dcnr.pa.gov/cs/groups/public/documents/document/dcnr_010289.pdf.
The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Saturday. Kemery retired as the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County branch of the Purdue Extension Service.