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Common Cattail

Common Name: Common Cattail.

Scientific Name: Cirsium Muticum.

What to look for?  In summer, large brown, “corn-dog”-shaped spike or flower head on tall stem in the wetlands; in early fall, this brown flower head pops open, letting its fluffy seeds emerge; and in winter and spring, the remnants of this large “fuzzy” spike can be seen on the tall stem. Common Cattails have unisexual flowers, separated by sex, in very dense cylindrical spikes. On the upper part of the spike are the male or staminate flowers which will drop off the stem once pollen is released during the summer. On the lower part are the female or pistillate flowers which develop into what we usually see as the six inch long "cattail." The stems are very erect and quite tall – upwards of nine feet. Common Cattail has almost flat strap-like leaves up to an inch wide that are bluish-green to grayish-green.

Where can they be found at Carillon Stonegate Pond? You can find Common Cattails in the wetlands northwest near the far end of the walking path. You may also them sporadically around the shores of our ponds.

How big are they? Common Cattail can grow from four feet to as much as nine feet tall – including the portion that may be below water. The leaves are approximately seven inches long and one inch across. The spike, including the “cattail”, is about six inches long.

Where do they grow and thrive? The Common Cattail is native to the continental U.S. and is common across the state of Illinois. Habitats include marshes, swamps, ponds, borders of rivers, and ditches. In marshes and other wetlands, the Common Cattail is often one of the dominant plants.

When do they bloom? The Common Cattail blooms during summer. Afterward, the fertile pistillate flowers will be replaced by achenes, or one-seeded fruits, (one achene each). The pistillate spikes persist into the autumn before releasing their achenes with chunky tufts of hair (see photo to right). After pollination, the staminate portion of the stalk disintegrates, leaving behind the “cattail” with which we are most familiar.

Do birds, insects or other wildlife associate with this plant? The caterpillars of various moths feed on some parts of Common Cattails. As we have seen around the Carillon Stonegate Ponds, muskrats feed on the starchy rootstocks of cattails. Many wetland birds, including the Red-Winged Blackbird, nest in cattail marshes and use the leaves of cattails as nesting material.

Interesting Facts About the Common Cattail:

  • Many wetland birds, including the Red-winged Blackbird, nest in cattail marshes.

  • Cattails are monoecious, which means that both male and female flowers appear on the same plant.

  • Where most plants are concerned with getting enough water, cattails face the unusual challenge of getting enough oxygen; they possess leaves with large air vessels that transfer the needed oxygen to the submerged rhizome.

  • The rootstock is mostly starch and edible and was ground into meal by Native Americans and the early colonists.

  • During World War II, the water-repellent and buoyant seeds were used by the U.S. Navy as substitute for kapok filler in life vests.

For more information on the Common Cattail and sources of information used in this blog (these are several of the sources that I am using to learn as I blog), please visit Illinois Wildflowers, University of Texas Wildflower Center, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Friends of the Wild Flower Garden.

The Carillon at Stonegate community is very fortunate to have a variety of wetland, forest and prairie environments conducive to a variety of birds and other wildlife, insects and plants. Our community and the Kane County Forest Preserve do an exceptional job in maintaining this natural environment – both for the benefit of the birds and wildlife and for our residents to enjoy.


Take a hike and see what you can find – and identify!

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