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Cattails: flowers of the spring and summer

By Les Harrison
Extension Director Emeritus UF/IFAS Special to The Star

Domestic cats are common in Gulf County.  The people-friendly version of this multi-color and variable size species is a popular choice as a low maintenance in-home pet. 

Today’s listless couch ornament is a far cry from its immediate ancestors which were valued for their pest control skills.  These feline predators endlessly prowled barns, warehouses, and any other location in and around Port St. Joe where rodents might frequent as they plotted damage to all things valued by humans. 

Today's gourmet meals in brightly illustrated containers were not how these mousers nutritionally sustained or amused themselves. It was easy to recognize a cat on the hunt by the intense stare and the gently swishing sometime erect tail. 

Fortunately for the resident rodents, a swaying cattail does not always mean impending doom by fang and claw. The native water plant curiously named for the feline appendage is a common sight in many ponds, swamps and backwaters. 

Typha is the plant genus which includes about 30 species of cattails. They are found mostly in the northern hemisphere, but some species have been introduced to non-native areas and are considered an exotic invasive plant. 

Florida has two native species of cattails. The common cattail (Typha latifolia ) and the southern cattail (Typha domingensis) are the two resident species. 

Both species can reach eight feet or more in height and grow prolifically from thick, underground rhizomes. Given their aggressive growth rate, it is not unusual that cattails are the dominant plant species in marshes, retention ponds, and ditches where they establish dense concentrations of plants.  

Unchecked, they can easily cover multiple acres in a nearly impenatrable monoculture packed so tightly competing plants do not have the room to get established. Cattails are especially successful where water levels fluctuate which inhibits the establishment of competitors. 

Cattails get their common name from their cylindrical flower spikes which can be more than a foot long. Their bloom’s unique appearance is not easily mistaken for other aquatic plants either native or exotic. 

Cattails seed heads with their hotdog like appearance are now maturing and soon to be distributing seed for next season’s plants.

The flower spikes are densely packed with tiny flowers and resemble, at a distance, a cat’s furry tail.  If a gentle breeze sways the cattails, it is easy to see why the common name has entered universal acceptance. 

Cattails flower in the spring and summer. The narrower, upper part of the spikes contains the male flowers and the bottom parts are the female flowers.  

The hotdog-like seed head forms later in the summer. It is green when immature, but dries to a dark brown.  

Each seedhead contains approximately 220,000 seed which are attached to a fine downy material. As the seedhead breaks up during the autumn, winter and early spring the seed are carried on the wind to new locations. 

Humans have long used cattail plant parts for food. The roots have a nutritional value similar to rice or corn and were a dietary staple long before the Spanish arrived. 

The seed's down is a favorite nest construction material of birds,  inadvertently helping spread the plant. Ironically, some rodent species will consume seed and plant parts, too.   

When a cattail or a cat’s tail is swaying and a rodent is present, the rat will have either a very good day or its last one. 

To learn more about cattails in Port St. Joe and area, contact the nearest UF/IFAS County Extension Office or visit https://sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/find-your-local-office/. To read more stories by Les Harrison visit: Outdoorauthor.com.