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Cattails
Typha augustifolia

Banat (Malay)


whole plantThis is the only Cattail native to Singapore. It grows in stagnant water and edges of reservoirs.

It is adapted to deeper waters; with tall, narrow leaves and producing more seeds (rather than reproducing from creeping underground roots like other cattails).

It is also able to tolerate saltier water conditions. It grows in swampy areas, even in mountains up to 1,700m.

Mangrove and wetland wildlife at
Sungei Buloh Nature Park
male and female flowers Main features: Grows up to 3m tall above the water.

Leaves: long, thin.

Flowers: Inflorescence like sausage-on-a-stick. Male flowers at the top and are covered with yellowish pollen when the inflorescence is young (photo at left). The female flowers at the bottom and turn into a fat brown "sausage" when they ripen (photo at right)

Fruits:
The brown "sausage" contains seeds with fluffy "parachutes".

Status in Singapore: ?

World distribution: Worldwide.

Classification: Family Typhaceae.
ripening fruit
How do these tall thin leaves manage to stand up so straight? The leaves have a spongy cross-section with air channels to help them float. And throughout their length, the leaves twist gently, adding to their strength. The air channels also bring air to the roots.

seeds separating from fruitThe male and female flowers are separated by about 3 cm of stem. The males are on the top of the "stick" and wither away soon after the flowering season, while the female flowers are below.
bees at a male flowerBees often gather at the male flowers filling their "pollen baskets" to the brim (left).

The ripening "fruits" are tightly packed together and look like a brown sausage on a stick. When the seeds ripen, they fluff up and the sausage disintegrates as the seeds are blown away by the wind.

The seeds can only grow if they land on water and are submerged for some time. They will die if they arrive on dry land. Cattail seeds have special adaptations to maximise the possibility of their seeds landing on water. The seeds only fluff up in dry weather, so the seeds won't land and get stuck on wet ground. Even when the seed lands on water, the umbrella shaped fluff continues to catch the wind so they skate across the surface for a distance before the fluff folds and the seed sinks. The seed is adapted to grow in oxygen poor soil.

Uses: The American Indians used cattails extensively. As building materials, cattails are used in making thatch. The dried stalks are used to weave bags, mats and other household items. They are also used as fuel for fires. The fluffy seeds are used to stuff pillows and other insulating clothing. As food, every part of the cattail can be eaten. The core of young flower shoots are tender and eaten raw (said to taste like cucumbers). The rhizomes can be processed to produce flour, as well as the seeds (the fluffy parts are burnt off). Green flower stems are cooked on the stick and eaten like corn-on-the-cob. Other parts that are eaten include young shoots and the pollen.

Traditional medicinal uses: The American Indians used the jelly from young leaves to treat wounds and other skin problems. When the brown flower head is burnt, it produces a smoke that repels insects.

Role in the habitat: Dense thickets of cattails provide shelter and nesting sites for many animals, both above water (birds) and underwater (fishes). Many birds use cattails as a nesting material; the leaves to form the structure and the fluffy seeds to make a warm, soft lining. Cattails also stabilise shorelines, preventing soil erosion, and also keep down bottom sediments, so the water is not clouded. Cattails have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their roots and help to return this valuable mineral to the soil.

LINKS
  • Managing Aquatic Plants in Minnesota Lakes on the University of Minnesota website: About how aquatic plants contribute to lake health, and other details of various aquatic plants.
  • North American Cattails by K. Motivans, S. Apfelbaum for The Nature Conservancy: lots of details about T. augustifolia and other cattails.
  • Cattails: The supermarket of the swamps by CGSN Online: lots of details on how to eat various parts of cattails, including details on harvesting and recipes!
  • McMaster University Dept of Biology website: lots of details on how seeds germinate and adaptations to maximise the possibility of seeds landing on water.
REFERENCES
  To buy these references & others, visit
Nature's Niche
  • Science Club, River Valley High School, "A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of Schools in Singapore", Hillview Publications, 1991 (p. 65: description, habits, habitat, photo).
  • Dr E Soepadmo (ed.), "The Encyclopedia of Malaysia: Plants", Aquatic Flowering Plants by Cheksum Supiah Tawan, Editions Didier Millet, 1998 (p. 72-73: habit).
  • Peter K L Ng (ed.), "A Guide to Freshwater Life in Singapore", BP Singapore Science Centre, 1991 (p. 64: description, habit, habitat, photos).
 
By Ria Tan, 2001