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Meanwhile, enjoy this month’s issue on cattails, the amazing wetland wonder-plant. Considering the uses it offers (to both animals and humans), it’s surprising the traits of cattails are not more well known.
Brenna & Betsy
The Folks at Nature Net
“We need the tonic of wildness—to wade sometimes in marshes
where the bittern and the meadow-hen lurk, and hear the booming of the snipe;
to smell the whispering sedge where only some wilder and more solitary
fowl builds her nest, and the mink crawls with its belly close to the ground….
We can never have enough of Nature.”
-Henry David Thoreau
Did You Know?
Cattails were used by Native Americans for many purposes – from food, to shelter, medicine, and textiles – even the first disposable diapers! Read more about it below in the Instant Outdoor Expert…
Cattails are also useful to wildlife: they serve as habitat for geese, ducks and other wetland birds; they are food to muskrats; and their fluffy seed heads provide a cozy nest-building material for songbirds.
The mighty cattail also helps keep lakes and shorelines healthy. They filter runoff from surrounding uplands, keeping phosphorus (and thus, algae blooms) from filling our lakes and ponds. They also help prevent boat or wind wake from eroding the shorelines.
While many of the 30 cattail species (Latin: Typha) are native to Wisconsin and North America and serve an important roll in maintaining the health and diversity of wetlands, the non-native Narrow-leaved Cattail can be invasive.
What To Do This Month:
See and touch cattails in person at Cherokee Marsh. Take part in a free, monthly family-friendly guided walks. Check the Friends of Cherokee Marsh newsletter for more info.
Listen for the return of Red Wing Blackbirds who make their warm-weather home among the cattails. It’s a sure sign of spring when the brightly-winged males are heard calling “conk-la-ree”. But, can you spot the females? They blend in with the tan colors of the dried cattail leaves.
Watch cattail seeds fly in the wind. This time of year, the seed heads have turned to fluffy seeds ready to take flight and find a wet area to germinate. Cattail seeds heads can contain over 250,000 individual seeds – each of which can remain viable in the seed bank for up to 100 years!
Get ready for spring at the Spring Flower Show at Olbrich Botanical Gardens starting March 7th – 10am-4pm daily.
Instant Outdoor Expert:
Some say if you’re lost in the wilderness and you find cattails, you’ve found four of the essential survival needs: water (since cattails generally thrive in standing water), food, shelter, and fuel for a fire. There are numerous accounts of Native Americans using cattails for each of these uses – and more. All parts of the plant are edible at various times throughout the year. In early spring, new shoots can be peeled and cooked or eaten raw, and as the flower heads emerge, they can be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. As the season progresses, pollen can be collected and used as flour in baking. And when winter rolls around, the root stocks – or rhizomes – can be dried and ground into flour. It is thought that this form of starch provides ten times the amount potatoes provide. Some people today eat cattails – you can find inspiration and recipes from Eat the Weeds and Wild Man Steve Brill.
In addition to a food source, pounded root matter was used to fight skin infections, blisters, and stings and the sticky substance from green leaves was used as an antiseptic.
As for shelter, leaves were used by Native people to make sturdy mats and thatching for wigwams. These mats lasted up to three years before needing replacement. (See the Nature Craft below for instructions on how to weave your own cattail mat.) Dried green leaves can also be used for basket weaving and cord spinning and the seed fluff was used for insulation. Learn more from the Native American encyclopedia.
To build a fire the downy seeds can be used as tinder and the firm, brown seed heads can be dipped in animal fat or wax and used as a torch.
Perhaps most intriguing to learn is that downy cattail seeds were used as the first disposable diaper. In one Native American language, the word for cattail is translated to mean “fruit for papoose’s bed”. Native women were known to stuff their baby’s papoose with comfy and absorbent fluff and throw it out once it was soiled.
Tricks of the Trail – Marsh Wildlife – Muskrats
If you’re out visiting Cherokee Marsh (or maybe Wisconsin’s nationally acclaimed 33,000-acre Horicon Marsh), you might spy the dome-shaped mounds of cattail reeds that signify the handy-work of a near-by muskrat. Muskrats – though not rats but indeed in the rodent family – are known for their cattail homes, also called “push-ups”. These push-ups are about three feet in height and during winter, provide a protective covering over a hole in the ice where muskrats can come and go. Muskrats rely on cattails not only for lodging but for food as well. While they will also eat bulrushes, horsetails, or pondweeds, it appears cattails are their favorite snack. Fun fact: muskrats are adapted for underwater eating. Their incisors, or cutting teeth, stick out in front of their cheeks and lips so they can snip and chew on cattail roots while their mouths are closed!
Featured Nature Net Site:
Cherokee Marsh is the largest wetland in Dane County, Wisconsin. The marsh is located just upstream from Lake Mendota, along the Yahara River and Token Creek.
Strategically located at the head of Madison’s lakes, Cherokee Marsh acts as a living sponge. It filters upland runoff, using excess fertilizer to grow marsh plants, and slowly releases cleaner water to the lakes below. It is used by thousands of students each year for environmental education.
The North Unit has 3.4 miles of trails along with a boardwalk and two observation decks. Visitors are invited to snowshoe, ski, and hike the trails. There are boat launches in the warm months.
The Friends of Cherokee Marsh was formed in 2006 to protect, preserve, and restore the beauty, value, and health of Cherokee Marsh and the upper Yahara River watershed.
Woven Cattail Mat
Start planning now for your cattail mat weaving project – because the time to gather cattail leaves is the end of summer, as they’re about to die back.
Cut green bundles of leaves – those without seed heads – just above the water level.
Lay leaves out to dry in the shade, away from moisture. You can dry them all fully and then rehydrate them when you’re ready to work with them or partially dry them so they are still pliable as you start weaving. Drying should take a couple days.
Start your mat at the middle point by overlapping four leaves in a basic over-and-under pattern: lay two leaves parallel to one another and then weave the third and fourth leaves perpendicular to the first two.
Add one leaf at a time on each side, going around and around, still using the over-and-under pattern.
Keep the mat as square as possible, while keeping the weave fairly tight.
When you have about 5 inches of leaf-length left on each side, fold the leaves over the mat and weave the ends into the other side to hold them tight.
“Near One Cattail: Turtles, Logs and Leaping Frogs” by Anthony Fredericks
“Over in a River: Flowing Out to the Sea” by Marianne Berkes
“Berries, Nuts, and Seeds (Take Along Guides” by Diane Burns
“America’s Wetlands: Guide to Plants and Animals (America’s Ecosystems)” by Marianne D. Wallace
“A Drop of Water” by Gordon Morrison
“Here is the Wetland” by Madeleine Dunphy
“River Wild: An Activity Guide to North American Rivers” by Nancy Castaldo
“Explore Rivers and Ponds: With 25 Great Projects” by Carla Mooney
“Marshes & Swamps” by Gail Gibbons