A ghoulish monster: the hybrid cattail

Cattails. Photo by Chris Helzer at The Nature Conservancy.
Cattails. Photo by Chris Helzer.

By Stuart Orr

What plant do you picture when you think of wetlands? It’s likely that you picture cattails with their long green leaves and brown cylindrical flower spikes. Unfortunately, most of the cattails you see in wetlands and ditches today are an aggressive species that is rapidly choking out important habitat for native plants and wildlife.

In our Northwest Indiana, Northeast Illinois area, there are three types of cattails. There is the broad-leaved cattail (Typha latifolia) that is native to North America. The native broad-leaved cattails have always been a natural component of many wetlands, growing in balance with other wetland vegetation and not forming thick mats. They are an important source of food for animals, and also served as cover and nesting sites for a wide variety of ducks as well as red-winged blackbirds and marsh wren.

There is also a non-native cattail, the narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia), that was accidentally introduced during European settlement on the east coast in the 1800s and eventually spread to the Great Lakes region by the 1880s. It is now widespread all across the continent.

Oddly enough, the native and non-native cattails hybridized to form the third type of cattail, the hybrid cattail (Typha x glauca). This hybrid offspring is larger and even more aggressive than either parent. It grows vigorously and chokes out native plants by creating a thick mat of dead vegetation that few other species can survive in. Once established, the non-native cattails spread rapidly. They have up to 250,000 seeds per plant and can spread several feet per year via underground stems called rhizomes. The hybrid cattail rapidly displaces native wetland plant species and forms large monocultures that provide little in the way of food for wildlife.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Well it certainly is when you consider that thanks to this hybrid, our precious wetlands can become biologically impoverished, wet deserts where few other species of plants or animals can live.

As you travel across Northwest Indiana this fall, notice the prevalence of hybrid cattails in most of the roadside ditches and around many retention ponds. Sadly, these are not healthy environments because they cannot support the diversity of insect and animal life that makes for healthy wetland landscapes.

At Kankakee Sands we work tirelessly to eradicate the non-native and hybrid cattails for the benefit of our wetland plants, animals and insects. Watch for volunteer workdays at Kankakee Sands in 2015 to eradicate cattails from the wetland restorations and be a part of the solution. Visit Kankakee Sands this fall, or any time of year, and discover the beauty and diversity of plant life in our Northwest Indiana wetlands devoid of the ghoulish cattail.

Stuart Orr is the Northwest Indiana Restoration Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy.  Stuart has nine years of experience eradicating cattails and other invasive plants from remnant and restored wetlands in Northern Indiana.

The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands of Indiana and Illinois is 10,000 acres of prairie and savanna habitat in Northwest Indiana and Northeast Illinois, open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information click here or call the office at 219-285-2184.

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