January is quiet time in the Gateway Wetlands. No fish splashing as they disappear back under the surface of the pond. No red-winged blackbirds calling to each other or making what appears to be a precarious landing near the tip of a cattail.
The colors of January also tend to be subdued. No wildflowers in bloom. No bright butterflies. No dragonflies with glistening wings. No goldfinches or red-breasted robins flitting overhead. Not much green, either, though in mid-January, I found ice crystals against a background of still-green grass.
Every season has its beauty, however. In January, bare trees disclose the location of nests that were hidden all summer and draw designs against the sky. A few leaves—mostly oak—teach tenacity by clinging to cold branches. Wind-ruffled or tranquil, the water always catches the eye.
The now-tan stems and long leaves of the cattails still wave in the breeze. They look dormant, but we may be fooled. The stems for next summer’s cattails begin as shoots growing on the rhizomes during late winter, sometimes even when ice covers the water (The rhizome is an elongated stem running parallel with the ground, from which roots and shoots grow). If the shoots have not yet started to sprout, it probably won’t be long. Last fall the rhizomes stored starch, “baby food” for the new shoots.
Some of the cattails are still topped by their brown cylindrical seed heads, which have been likened to hot dogs on a stick, cigars, and, of course, cat tails. If, like me, you once took a cattail seed head home to use in an arrangement of dried flowers and neglected to spray it, you know it can explode at a touch. As many as 250,000 seeds on fluffy wings spill out. In the wild, these seeds are scattered by the wind, and can remain viable for a century, awaiting the right combination of water, sun and heat.
Cattails reproduce not only by seed but also by growth of the rhizomes. It is said that a whole acre of cattails may actually be only a few individual plants; i.e., a few rhizomes with their roots and shoots. Full-grown plants may be ten feet tall.
Cattails, which can thrive in either fresh or mildly brackish water, play an important role in wetlands. The intertwined rhizomes and roots help to prevent soil erosion. Being tightly packed, the cattails filter sentiment and pollutants from the water. Although they generally start close to the shore, once the roots are intertwined, a group of cattails can break off and become a floating mat.
A number of creatures depend on cattails for habitat and food. In the Midwest, turtles, toads, snakes, raccoons, cottontails, wild turkeys and even deer are known take cover in them. Frogs and salamanders lay eggs and fish hide out in water among cattails. Insects live on them. Geese, ducks and red-winged nest among cattails in the Gateway Wetlands.
All parts of the cattail are important to wildlife. Muskrats and beavers eat rhizomes use the foliage in building their homes. Hummingbirds and red-winged blackbirds line their nests with seed fluff. The pollen is important to bees.
Over the centuries, human beings have also used all parts of the cattail. European settlers learned from their predecessors on this continent that the rhizomes were an excellent source of starch for the diet. Young shoots are peeled and cooked; they have the nickname “Cossacks' asparagus” because of their were popularity in Russia. Cooked like corn on the cob at the right season, the seed head is tasty. The pollen could be used in making biscuits. Euell Gibbons, who became famous in the 1960s for his writings on wild foods, called cattails “the supermarket of the swamp” in his book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus.
Cattails are not only a source of food. The seed fluff has been used to stuff pillows, mattresses, and coats, and to line baby diapers. I won’t try to catalogue all the uses found by the first inhabitants of North America; instead I’ll refer you to http://www.nativetech.org/cattail/index.html, where Native Tech lists nineteen different uses made of the cattail and provides directions for weaving mats and making toys from the leaves.
Walk the paths around the Gateway Wetlands with me this winter, admiring the cattails and other sights. And continue to walk there throughout the year as the seasons continually transform the Wetlands.
NOTE: You can access the walkway around the Gateway Wetlands off Feather Sound (turn north off Boughton Road across the street from Macy’s) or from the parking lot on Anne Lane (off Janes Avenue). Be careful walking on the docks and wooden walks in cold weather; water freezes on the wooden surface.
© 2013 Wilda Morris