Friday, June 02, 2006

Friend Or Foe?


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I had been hoping that these were some really vigorous blue flag iris growing down by the pond. I had transplanted some iris from my garden to the pond last year, but as spring rolled on and the leaves grew taller and taller, it was harder to convince myself. Then the cattail spike appeared.

So now I have cattails in my tiny pond. That's a first. The seeds may have drifted in or been in a bucket of river water I dumped in as I added critters to the pond.

These guys are native, so in my book they get a grace period automatically. I've always liked cattails...to the point of eating them a time or two. The underground rhizomes have a cucumbery flavor which is not bad, but not something I crave either. I've never tried the tops even though the young "tails" are supposed to be edible.

As kids, we loved it when Dad would soak the cattail head in kerosene and then we would parade around with our torches on summer evenings, dripping sparks and burning fragments. You had to plan for that moment when the stalk burned through to avoid the falling, flaming head. Thank God there weren't any video games then.

Cattails provide lots of cover for wildlife and alot of marsh birds will use them as nesting sites. I remember finding lots of redwing blackbird nests woven in cattails in Savannah National Wildlife Refuge years ago. Each woven cup held 2 or 3 chicks. Other birds, like those masters of disguise, the Bitterns, are practically designed around the cattail motif.

Here in Florida, Cattails get negative press farther south where too many humans have made too many changes to the glades. Development and the big sugar companies (could we puleeeeze drop the stupid decades old Cuban embargo nonsense...Castro will be dead soon) have screwed up the sheet flow from Lake O. south to Florida Bay to such an extent that the conditions in much of the glades favor cattails over the "locally native" sawgrasses. Cattails are invading and replacing the sawgrasses and other glades wetland plants and in that case they are a menace to a delicate system.

I imagine my cattails will become ,like the clever black willows, a headache of my own making. In coming years, I'll pull and cut, fussing about their ability to "take over" the very habitat they were made for...
...my pond.

18 comments:

Betsy said...

Beautiful cattails and orange milkweed, growing wild on your place -- how nice!

I stopped buying Big Sugar sugar a few years ago. It's organic-only for me. Costs more, but then I really don't need to eat as much sugar as did, anyway.

I also started substituting honey for sugar where possible -- since honey is actually an ecologically beneficial product, especially local honey. On strawberries it's great. Not something I would put in my coffee, though!

John Cowart said...

I've seen folks pout melted wax around a dried cattail and burn them as candle wicks. Makes an impressive flame.

Abandoned in Pasadena said...

I once cut some cattails and put them in a big jar/vase that sat on the floor. They looked great, quite an impressive looking bouque until one day I came home to find that they had all exploded.

Yes, cattails do take over, but you can pull them out when they become a problem and then get some ducks that love to eat the cattail shoots as they sprout.

pablo said...

Cattails are slowing ringing my pond. Libby and I have pulled some just to keep our view open, but their roots are so tenacious and interwoven that it is tough work. And as you say, the critters love them. I think when the time finally comes for me to clear them, I'll rent one of those miniature backhoes and have a day of fun.

I'd read somewhere that cattails are not native to North America. Or maybe there is some variety that is not native. Anyway, it's a love/hate relationship for me.

Wayne said...

I think I've pointed out my experiments, as a kid, in making gunpowder out of sugar and potassium nitrate I'd buy at the local drug store (which finally refused to sell me anymore). No video games then either!

I know your ambivalence about cattails. It's an interesting ecological situation where a drought encourages more tolerant plants like that over those like sawgrass that would want a more even aquatic environment. And then the mere presence of the cattails contributing to soil accumulation ensures more and more.

Still, I really like them.

Pablo is right - there are three native species of Typha and one nonnative - Typha angustifolia, narrowleaf cattail. From the map it looks like that one is not in Florida, GA, AL, MI, or TX - but it is just about everywhere else.

Deb said...

For a while my job was issuing aquatic plant management permits to people who wanted to control weeds. I understand the need to protect habitat, but I always had a hard time telling people that the eight foot tall impenetrable cattail fringe that stood between them and open water was somehow providing an indispensable service to the lake and should not be messed with. Yes, they do provide some habitat but if a pond gets too choked with them the habitat value diminishes.

roger said...

we have redwing blackbirds from the cattail marsh about a 1/4 mile away coming to our feeder. the females seem to load up their beaks with seed. we are guessing that they have chicks.

was that a teensy bit of political comment about cuba?

Hick said...

See what I mean about smart talk?

Ahem...yes, we also have catus tailus in the Sierra foothills.

I have never found any redwings or any other type of wings amongst the invasive root system.

I did have an experience similar to Pasadena...what a mess.

Mrs. S said...

Finally something I recognize! We had these growing along the ponds and banks in Northern Ontario where I grew up. My sister and I would use them as swords and fight to the death, or use them to stir our crazy "witch brews" or snap off a few and put them in the big bucket with the frogs we caught (because nothing says "natural" like a few broken cat tails when you're surrounded by plastic and squealing children, right?).

We never got to set fire to them, or blow things up, though - even though we didn't have video games.

Maybe I can get a do over. What do you think?

pablo said...

Great post, FC!

Laura said...

I was just fine as I read through this post, right up till I got to the part about the Everglades.
It just drives me crazy what they're doing to the 'glades. The sheer number of housing developments right across from Alligator Alley are unbelieveable. will we ever learn?
I'm going to stop now before I go off on a rant and take up your entire comment section.
Intead I'll take deep breaths and reflect on the beauty of the cattails instead. Nature always finds a way.

OldHorsetailSnake said...

Aw, just leave 'em alone, Cracker. They won't take over the pond for a long time. Let the next guy worry about it.

(And, boy, do I agree with you on Cuba. Geez, right-wing Republicans frost my cookies.)

Gin said...

It's my understanding that the exploding cattail heads are caused by the larvae of the Limnaecia phragmitella moth. They overwinter inside the seedheads, feeding on the seeds. You can prevent the fluffing out if you gather the heads early. Preheat an oven to 200 degrees, turn it off, then putting the heads inside and leave them overnight. This kills the moth larvae. Be sure to put the heads in a pan to catch the larvae. (BTW, it helps to have an understanding family if you do this.)

And FWIW, both the cattail leaves and seedhead fluff make lovely handmade paper. The seedhead paper is fairly weak, but it has both the appearance and texture of pigskin, making it a lovely paper for covering a book.

Floridacracker said...

Betsy,
I like honey on biscuits...alot. We hardly ever buy sugar because we don't sweeten coffee, tea, or anything else hardly. Occasional baking is about the only call for it here...although I know it's in things we buy.

John,
We'll have to try that one.

Abandoned,
Our duck experience was fun and tragic.

Pablo,
You're right, they are tough. When they run out of bottom, they'll form interwoven floating mats down here.

Wayne, I thought you needed 3 things for gunpowder...sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter (KNO3). Are you telling me there's as shortcut? Hmmmmm.

Deb,
Exactly, I'm perfectly happy to have some of them, just want them to be in balance. That's the tricky part.

dpr,
More frustration with a failed stale policy. My feelings on Castro go something like this: young guerrilla fighter kicking out a brutal regime OK, Once in power using ruthless methods to squelch all freedom Not OK, and finally present day = old dictator, sooner he dies the better for Cuba, but he's harmless now and that policy is the justification for big sugar's lack of competition.

Hick,
My guests do the smart talk. I was just whining. Speaking of smart talk, you are responsible for me knowing the sci name for the magpie.

Pablo,
Thanks!

Laura,
Okay, what is up with your site or is it just my dinosaur dial up? It just would not load today.
I hear ya about the glades and agree 200%.

Hoss,
It'll make a nifty 68th county for Florida.

Gin,
Wow, this is why I love the comment section. You get all of this great info and new perspective. I've got a pretty understanding (defeated, bemused, astonished...) family so bugs in the oven should not seem unusual. Thanks for the great comment.

doubleknot said...

Cat tails - dinned on them once or twice by way of Ewull Gibbons. Never knew about the worms in them though.
I thought cat tails thrived in water that was polluted - acting as a natural filter?

threecollie said...

Interesting. When we moved up here to the farm we had to do some serious digging and ended up with a new "lawn" which sadly caught all the water from a blind ditch the incompetent contractor broke into. I decided it would be nice to have cattails, since I had a swamp lawn anyhow. My son went to great lengths to dig one up from a pond out in the pasture and transplant it for me. Then we noticed that there were hundreds of them already taking root wherever the new wet area was. Talk about opportunists! However here in NY they are in danger of being crowded out by rushes from NJ that followed the ditches beside the interstates up here, so I guess they are okay.

roger said...

fc---i like your mini-history of castro and cuba and us.

Floridacracker said...

doubleknot,
Remember this GrapeNuts commercial?
"Tastes like wild hickory nuts"

Threecollie,
What's a blind ditch?

dpr,
thanks. cuba is such a part of florida's history...literally for centuries...frustrating for it to be off limits for just about my entire life.