Image by Jeffrey Kontur
By Jackie Rhoades
Pass by any lake, pond, river or marsh that has been left to Mother Nature’s attention and you’ll find cattails (Typha latifolia). Ask anyone responsible for maintaining these same areas as part of an artificial landscape (like a garden) and opinions on those cattail plants or cattail control will be either “Aren’t they wonderful!” or “#@*&! weeds!” Unfortunately, both opinions have valid reasons to support them.
When it comes to landscaping a natural pond (any natural body of water within your landscape), be careful. Cattails for the pond can be both a headache and a delight, but learning how to control cattails can tip the scales dramatically in their favor.
The Good Side of Cattail Plants
From a naturalist’s point of view, cattail plants are a wonder of nature where every part of the plant can be used to benefit a variety of species, including humans. These perennials are tall sturdy plants that can grow to almost ten feet tall (2 meters). They have heavy, rhizomatous roots; long flat leaves; and long, cylindrical brown flower spikes that can add height and texture to the aquatic garden and will grow anywhere that supplies a constant source of water.
Underwater, they provide a safe haven for tiny fish and attract many of the smaller aquatic creatures that birds and other wildlife feed on. They create a shelter from winter cold and wind for mammals and birds and a source of nesting material with their leaves and seeds. If you want to attract a wide variety of wildlife into your landscape, consider cattails for the pond.
Humans have always benefited from the lowly cattail. Plants have been used for rush bottom furniture, baskets and mats. The downy seeds have been used to stuff pillows and mattresses and during World War II were used to stuff life jackets.
Native Americans were experts in using every part of the plant, not only for stuffing or the waterproof qualities of the leaf, but as a reliable food source. All parts of the cattail plant, from the roots to the flower heads are edible. The rootstock can be boiled or roasted, or dried and ground into a powdery flour. The center of the stalks is thick and starchy and the flower heads can be roasted for a nutty tasting treat.
Cattail plants have industrial uses as well. Plant parts can be distilled into ethyl alcohol for antifreeze or an inexpensive solvent and the stems produce a sizing for shaving cream. What a versatile plant! And yet…
Tips on How to Control Cattails
Cattails for the pond come with a set of problems you may not want to deal with. Learning how to control cattails is a must, as these hardy plants can take over a pond in a matter of a few years. The reason for this lies in the reproductive capabilities of the cattail. Plants produce those wonderful, velvety ‘tails’. These are the flower heads and each head produces around 300,000 seeds, each equipped with its own little parachute to be borne on the wind. On a calm day, these little fluffs will fall straight to the ground around the parent plant and germinate quickly.
Plucking those seed heads before they ripen won’t help, however. Those rhizomatous roots produce their own sets of offspring, eventually forming dense mats. Cattail control, therefore, is essential to the health and well-being of your pond and landscape. The good news is there are several methods available to the home gardener for how to control cattails, so hopefully one of them will appeal to you.
The first method of cattail control involves the application of herbicides. There are two chemicals, diquat and glyphosate, that are both effective and approved for aquatic use. Diquat is a contact herbicide. It will kill the green part of the plant, but not the root. It is easy to use, but you’ll have to use it every year. Glyphosate is a systemic herbicide and will kill the root, although it may take several weeks to do the job. Your gardening or pond supply source should be able to help you find the brand names that contain these chemicals.
The next methods of how two control cattails are considered mechanical. Choice one is to dig them up! This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Those cattail plants have massive root systems. For larger areas of overgrowth, a back-hoe may be needed. Another alternative is the drowning method, which can only be used if the plants’ bases are completely submerged underwater. All you have to do is cut the plants off two or three inches below the water surface. This deprives the plant of the air it needs and it will drown.
Growing Cattails in a Pot
Growing cattails in a pot is another method to consider when deciding on how to control your cattails. This is particularly suitable for the small natural pond or an artificial (plastic or rubber-lined) one. Growing cattails in pots eliminates root spread, keeping your plants in a confined space. Clay pots are ideal for this. They have the weight to keep them upright when submerged and can be partially buried in a boggy area. Their downside is their susceptibility to cracking under freezing conditions. Growing cattails in pots will not, however, totally eliminate propagation. Don’t forget those fluffy little seeds! You’ll still need to be vigilant in your cattail control.