Southern Cattail

Typha domingensis

brown fuzzy tube on stem
Plant with disintegrating male flowers above female portion of flower stalks | La Orilla trailhead | August 2010

Southern cattail (Typha domingensis), with their tall, stiff, grass-like leaves and hotdog-on-a-stick flowers, are familiar plants of freshwater marshes. In the Reserve they are primarily found in East Basin, and in places west of the freeway near local fresh water sources.

Like many marsh plants, cattails have specialized internal tissues that allow direct transfer of air between leaves and roots (somewhat like a snorkel). This adaptation allows the roots to survive being submerged in stagnant water for extended periods of time.

Cattails were important to native Americans. Among many other uses, young shoots were harvested for food, leaves were used for thatch, and seed fluff was mixed with tallow and chewed as gum.

Other Common Names:

cattail, slender cattail, narrowleaf cattail, tule cattail

Description 2,4,26,59

Southern cattail is an upright perennial plant, 4-12 feet (1.5 – 4 meters) tall. Like other cattails, it spreads by rhizomes, and one or two plants can form a dense colony. The round flower spikes bear several long, strap-like green leaves. At the base where they clasp the stem, leaves become crescent-shaped in cross-section and have orange-brown mucilage glands on the inner surface; the mucilage is tan, shiny and sticky, resembling shellac.

Flowers are unisexual with male and female flowers clustered on separate portions of the flower spike. Flowers are tiny and lack petals. At the top of the spike, male flowers are tightly clustered into a yellowish, tapered cone, 6-10 inches (15-25 cm) long. Female flowers are below, packed around the stem into the familiar velvety, cinnamon brown “hot dog”. Infertile female flowers may be scattered among the fertile ones. The female flowers are separated from the male flowers by a short section of bare stem. Occasionally a third cluster of female flowers occurs below the first. After pollen is released, the male flowers disintegrate, leaving a bare stem. Flowers open between June and July.1

The tiny seeds are attached to hair-like stalks from which arise clusters of fine hairs that disperse seeds by wind or water. These hairs make a matrix of “fluff”, and often sizeable clumps of hairs and seeds will beak away from the flower stalk together, giving the “hot dog” a mangy appearance.

orange speckled branch

Inner leaf with mucilage glands | La Orilla trailhead | August 2014

long green stems with fuzzy brown tubes

Stalk on left shows seeds ripening on female portion, stalk in center shows both male and female portions | La Orilla trailhead | August 2010

fuzzy tube on branch opening revealing white seeds

Dispersing seeds | Nature Center | August 2013

Distribution 2,7,41

Southern cattail is a California native that grows in temperate and tropical freshwater marshes and riparian wetlands worldwide. It is found throughout California and in most states, in the United States below 42N.67 It generally grows below 7,000 feet (2200 meters) but has been reported from as high as 12,000 feet (3300 meters).89 It is considered invasive in many systems.

In the Reserve, Southern cattail is primarily found east of Interstate 5 where it often co-occurs with California bulrush (Schoenoplectus californicus). It is also found in the freshwater marsh at the Nature Center, which is maintained by runoff from the surrounding communities, and one patch inexplicably grows in the sea water channel west of the Nature Center.

Classification 2,7,11,59

Southern cattail is an herbaceous, perennial monocot in the cattail family (Typhaceae). This family has two genera, Sparganium(bur-reed) and Typha (cattail), both of which are grass-like plants of wet areas that grow from horizontal stems (rhizomes) that may be submerged for long periods of time.

There are 15 recognized species of cattails, of which three are found in Califonia. The California species are similar in appearance and hybridize in areas of overlap, which makes identification difficult. Two species have been reported in the Reserve, southern cattail and common cattail (T. latifolia).48 Characteristics distinguishing the two include the presence (or absence) of space between male and female portions of the flower spike, and leaf characteristics, including the presence (or absence) of mucilage glands. In the Reserve, the southern cattail appears to be the more common.


Alternate Scientific Names:

Typha angustata

Jepson eFlora Taxon Page
fuzzy tube on branch

Female portion of flower stalk | La Orilla trailhead | August 2010

close up of long tall branches

Leaf base | La Orilla trailhead | August 2014

tall long leaves and reeds

Plant with male and female portions of flower stalk | La Orilla trailhead | June 2013


Southern cattail belongs to a group of perennial plants called “emergent”.124 These are salt or freshwater marsh plants that have their roots anchored below the water surface and their leaves and flowers in the air. Often these are tall, grass-like plants. Other common emergent plants in the Reserve include cordgrass (Spartina foliosa) and bulrush (Schoenoplectus californica).

The emergent strategy appears to maximize photosynthesis by providing a consistent source of water and, at the same time, exposure to full sunlight.41 However, the roots of emergent plants require oxygen for growth and function, and the sediment that surrounds them is characteristically low or lacking in oxygen. Southern cattails have a system of elongated, hollow cells within the leaves (aerenchyma).41 These provide diffusion channels that transfer oxygen from the atmosphere through the vegetative structures to the roots (somewhat like snorkels); at the same time, excess carbon dioxide from the roots diffuses in the opposite direction.

Southern cattail is primarily a plant of freshwater marshes. Germination is strongly depressed by salt, but, once established, the subsurface rhizomes can persist several years in moderately saline conditions and give rise to new shoots when salinity decreases.119  In the Reserve, water input east of Interstate 5 is fresh but the soils beneath contain residual salts accumulated during past incursions of the ocean. In years of normal or above normal rainfall, cattails flourish. Under drought conditions, however, the marsh becomes increasingly saline from water leaching up from the soil, and cattails do poorly.119 The consequent expansion and contraction of the cattail population with annual rainfall can be seen in the two images below. The image in the middle shows a thriving stand of southern cattails in 2010, a period of normal precipitation; the right image shows the same stand in 2014 after three consecutive years of drought.

Anomalous stands of cattails, such as the small patch in the ocean channel by the Nature Center may be explained more by past conditions than by present ones.

field of long, tall stems

La Orilla trailhead | August 2010

field of dried stems

After 3 years of drought | La Orilla trailhead | August 2014

inside of branch with sections

Leaf cross-section showing aerenchyma | La Orilla trailhead | August 2014

Human Uses  

Given the worldwide distribution of southern cattail, it is not surprising that a wide variety of uses have been reported by both indigenous and modern peoples. All parts of the plant have been used by someone, somewhere, for something. It is likely that most species of cattail were used interchangeably.15

Southern cattails were used as thatch on the reconstructed Kumeyaay dome house (“ewaa”) at the Nature Center; indeed, cattails were preferred by some because of their water-shedding capabilities.75 Kumeyaay and Luiseño17 ate the tender young shoots and the Chumash also made flour from the roots (rhizomes), a mush from the pollen and ate the flower spikes like corn.15

Numerous other applications by other Americans have been recorded.75,117,118 The seed “fluff” has been used to line cradleboards, stuff toys and, during WWII, stuff life jackets. Mixed with tallow, fluff has been used as chewing gum. Both root and “fluff” have been used as topical ointments. Pollen has been used as face paint. Cattail leaves were the first materials used by early settlers to cane chairs.

Modern proponents of self-reliance, suggest following the lead of indigenous peoples and making flour from the cattail rhizomes (the subsurface horizontal stems). It has been estimated that one acre of cattails will produce ten times more rhizomes than will an acre of potatoes,122 and these will produce more flour than an acre of wheat or other grain.67,117 A bit of cattail pollen may be added for an appealing buttery color.67,117,121 Cattails have been suggested as a potential food source for the world’s population.67


close up of hairy white seeds

Seeds and "fluff" | La Orilla trailhead | August 2014

fuzzy brown tube

Male portion of flower stalk | La Orilla trailhead | August 2010

Thin white hairs of seed

Seed (30X) | La Orilla trailhead | August 2014

Interesting Facts  

One flower spike may produce as many as 250,000 seeds.122

Southern cattail is considered an aggressive invader in many systems.41,83 Assessments of wildlife value are divergent, ranging from “important members of pond and marsh communities”59 and “highly palatable to migratory ducks”11 to “reduced habitat value”123 and “undesirable weeds in places intended for ducks”.67 Also, “Submerged portions of all aquatic plants provide habitats for many micro and macro invertebrates…[which] in turn are used as food by fish and other wildlife species (e.g. ducks).”124 Differences are due to such local conditions as density and diversity of marsh vegetation (including cattails) and the amount of open water.123 In the Reserve, cattails provide shelter and nesting sites for the tiny Marsh Wrens, and the noisy Redwing Blackbirds40,67 as well as cover for ducks, rails and mammals.

brown fuzzy tube

Female portion of flower stalk | La Orilla trailhea | August 2010

brown fuzzy tube on plant

Stalk with two female clusters | La Orilla trailhead | August 2014

close up of fuzzy tube on stem

Male portion of flower stalk | La Orilla trailhead | August 2013

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