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Native to North America and parts of Europe and Asia, cattails feel right at home in wetlands and boggy soil. They add a bold vertical presence to water gardens and ponds, thanks to their height (4 to 6 feet); upright, swordlike leaves; and familiar cylindrical fruiting spike displayed by female plants after summer flowering and pollination. The fruiting spikes, which persist through winter, are a favorite landing spot for red-winged blackbirds and dragonflies. Cattails also provide a valuable habitat for wetland birds and other wildlife.
Along with their contributions to landscaping projects, cattails are collected for use in both fresh and dried arrangements and eaten as produce. The rhizomes of narrowleaf cattail Typha angustifolia can be peeled and cooked like potatoes, for example. Young spring shoots, which have a nutty flavor, can be used like asparagus. Stay safe, though—always wash cattails before adding them to the menu, and never consume them if they come from areas with contaminated water.
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Keeping in mind that cattails spread aggressively (so allow plenty of room for expansion), pair them with additional plants that thrive in moist, boggy soil. Some excellent planting companions that are less aggressive than cattails include yellow flag iris Iris pseudacorus and blue flag iris Iris versicolor. These water-loving plants display showy flowers in spring and thick blue-green foliage. Sweet flag Acorus calamus is a tall plant with light green, reedlike stems and a spicy fragrance when the foliage is crushed or broken. Variegated cattail plans sport green-and-white striped foliage.
How to Care For Cattails
Easy to grow in rich, moist soil and full sun or part shade, cattails grow in wet soil and even standing water up to 12 inches deep. Cattails require minimal maintenance. In early spring cut back spent foliage and flowers if desired, or allow the debris to decompose in place.
Stay alert. Cattails are aggressive spreaders that will colonize a wet, boggy area through a series of underground rhizomes. (They may also self-seed.) Their roots extend deep into the muddy shallows of ponds and waterways and are very hard to eradicate once they are established. If left unrestrained, they will crowd out most other water plants. Enjoy the beauty of cattails and keep their growth in check by planting them in containers or tubs placed in the water. Water deeper than 12 inches will also restrain invasive spread.