Wednesday, November 18, 2009


Cattails are common. They form dense stands around the edges of marshes, sometimes so prolific when conditions are right that they fill in the entire marsh. The roots - a thick fleshy rhizome -- creep along in the muck, such that a vast stand of cattails may be from just a few plants.

Marshes go by different names, depending on the water depth, and plant community, and substrate. Some are shallow, some are deep, some are more sedgy or have more grasses, some are shrubby or have some trees. One with mostly cattails, is simply called a cattail marsh. In these marshes cattails are so dominant that they exclude most other plant species. When they are not so dominant, cattails will share the marsh with tussock sedge, bulrush, bur-reed, manna-grass and blue-joint, and some others.

Red-winged blackbirds, muskrats, swamp sparrows, rails and bitterns come to mind when I walk near a cattail marsh. Muskrats and cattails are quite a pair. Muskrats eat their fleshy roots and make their small huts or lodges out of the leaves, creating channels through the cattail stands as they go. Ducks like the open water cleared of cattails by the muskrat. They can swim among the reeds, safe from predators, while catching small aquatic insects among the emergent wetland plants.

David Carroll, a New Hampshire artist, writer, naturalist, philosopher and swampwalker, writes in his award-winning Swampwalker's Journal-A Wetlands Year:

"Determined swampwalker that I may be, I am kept out of much of this cattail marsh. As in many wetlands, the muck here is more than an impediment, it is an impassable barrier. I cannot make my way through most of the cattail stands, nor wade the muskrat channels. The pools of floating-leaved and submersed plants and the spaces of open water are well beyond my reach. They are the realm of muskrat, Blanding's turtle, black duck, and dragonfly.......I content myself with circling the wadeable margins, getting glimpses into the interior through reedy curtains of cattail."

The brown spike of the cattail is the pistillate or female part of the flower. The staminate or male part of the flower is above the corn-dog looking female flower. The flowers are borne on tall stalks, over your head and mine. The sword-like leaves are slender and stiff, sheathed together at the base. At this time of year, the brown spikes are breaking open, scattering their seeds -- up to 250,000 seeds per spike -- into the wind and the water.

Read more about David's art and his "wet-sneaker trilogy" at his studio -- the Carroll Studio Gallery -- a family affair. Meanwhile strap on some sneakers and wander the margins of the cattail stands, catching the fluffy seeds as they scatter in the wind. Watch for the muskrat, swimming among the reeds, its hairless, scaly tail, a tell-tale sign that it is this aquatic vole and not its larger cousin the beaver.

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