In late summer and early fall Cattails make the scene on Parish Parkway and the edge of Bayou Liberty at Camp Salmen. They are a graceful wetland plant that adds nicely to the park’s fraternity of plants.
They have a distinctive dark brown sausage-shaped seedpod at their top. This is actually made of thousands of tightly packed flowers containing tiny, almost invisible seeds. As the “sausage” ripens at the end of the growing season it swells up and gradually disintegrates from the top down. As it does so it gives off scads of fluffy stuff, the flowers and seeds. This process does three things: 1.) it helps propagate the plant by wind distribution. 2.) it pleases nature lovers who like to watch nature “in action” and 3.) it provides a way for impatient and/or impertinent little boys to victimize the plant by thrashing them about to bust up the pods.
The drifting seeds would favor a new mudflat or a riverbank but these are rare around here so we are lucky to have them where the plants have placed themselves in our ditches.
The English call them bulrushes. American’s, who have a slightly different culture, have been known to call them “corn dog grass” because they remind them of a favorite basic foodstuff. They are also called “punks” because if the stalk and seedpod are soaked in oil or wax they can be lit to keep a burning ember handy for catching things afire. There are eleven species worldwide and ours is likely Typha latifolia or Common Cattail.
The seedpods have a number of uses. Louisiana swamp Muskrats and, oddly enough, Russian Cossacks from the Ukraine eat them. Birds line their nests with the fluff. Native Americans used it as kindling for starting fires, to line their moccasins and as a soft place to lay down their babes. The downy material can also be used to insulate clothing.
As rare and valuable as they are at Camp Salmen and as beautimous as they are in Louisiana’s wetlands, they are considered an obnoxious invader in other parts of the country, hogging sunlight, displacing other native plants and laying down dense root mats from the Great Lakes to the Everglades. We should be so lucky.