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THE OUTDOORS DIGEST | FIELD GUIDE

Broad-leaved cattail

November 04, 2003|David Lukas

[ TYPHA LATIFOLIA ]

Across California, a tremendous dusting of cattail seeds announces the approach of winter. Equipped with conspicuous fluffy tails that hitch long-distance rides on any wind gust, the microscopic seeds originate on a 6- to 8-inch spike atop each plant. Brown and fuzzy like old socks, these spikes seem to explode from within as they ripen, turning inside out to expose seeds to the elements. Seeds wait through the hot, musky days

of autumn for the first strong storm or wind

that will send them sailing. Those lucky enough to land on shallow water immediately bail out of their traveling capsules (pericarps) and sink into the waterlogged mud.

NATURAL HISTORY

Cattails are a characteristic species on the world's shallow, freshwater lake and pond edges. A young plant spreads aggressively by sprouting from its long root system, quickly covering about half an acre with a dense thicket of stems. Each flowering spike produces 250,000 or more seeds, making cattails one of nature's most prolific plants.

KEY CHARACTERISTICS

Cattails have long, linear leaves filled with spongy air pockets. In the fall, these leaves turn yellow and orange as they dry up. The spikes are divvied into two parts, with early blooming male flowers on the top and seed-producing female flowers forming the soft brown "broom handle" below.

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