Cattails have served many uses over the years

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By Sylvia Brockner

Summer is here, along with the Denver International Airport weather station registering the first 90-degree temperature for the year on July 1. Along with the warm weather, afternoon thunderstorms continue to rumble across the mountains, bringing storms and tornadoes to the plains. There have been a few interesting bird records, but the spring migration has just about come to a standstill.

Betty Minges reported the first rufous hummingbird at Genesee on Monday, June 29, which is a bit earlier that the usual Fourth of July date. She also reported a male rose-breasted grosbeak still coming to find out if it is nesting, for it is a late date for it to still be here. At this time it should be nesting. Since they are so uncommon here, it is possible that if it could not find a mate, it might possibly have mated with a female black-headed grosbeak. It is known that such hybridization does rarely occur.

Most migrants have already passed through and are already nesting farther north. A few birds that have been delayed for some reason will lose the migration instinct and just not breed for one year.

The graceful cattails are once more greening the wetlands at Evergreen Lake. Cattails are amazing in their speed of growth. One day a tip of new green leaf appears among last year’s old, dead stalks, and the next day it seems they are 2 inches high. In just a few days the wetlands are green again and the cattails are putting up their flowering stalk that gives them their name.

Cattails grow around the world and were used by many primitive people. At Evergreen Lake, they associate with the narrow-leaf cattail (Typha angustifolia).

The flower stalk is topped with a cylindrical flower head of hundreds of tiny flowers, packed tightly around the stem. The common cattail has broader leaves and a thicker flower stalk. The narrow-leaved cattail has a much narrower leaf, and the flower head is only about the size of a pencil. The flowers are of two types. The male flowers are born in a cluster at the top of the stem and the female flowers are in a separate cluster below the male flowers. The common cattail has the two clusters just touching each other, and the narrow-leaved cattail has a space of several inches between the two types.

The male flowers are always above the female flowers so that their pollen, when it falls, will fertilize the female flowers. As soon as all the pollen has fallen, the male flowers wither and the female flowers develop seeds. When they are ripe, the flowers begin to separate from the stalk, and each seed, which is attached to a fluffy parachute, is blown far away by the wind.

Native peoples have found so many uses for cattails that they have sometimes been referred to as the Natives’ Supermarket. When young (up to about a foot high), the shoots are stripped of their tough outer leaves and the golden yellow inner portion was eaten raw like a salad or was cooked as a pot herb. Since cattails also grow in Russia, this cooked version was often called Cossack Asparagus. The flowering stalk can also be used as food; it was removed whole from the leaves and boiled for 20 minutes and then eaten like corn on the cob. The rootstock was also eaten by removing the exterior sheath and just eating the inner white core, which can be boiled or baked. It is also ground or chopped up in water and separated from the fibers with your fingers. The white starch settles to the bottom of the pan and, when drained, it was dried and mixed half and half with regular flour to make pancakes. The fluffy seeds were used to stuff pillows, blankets and moccasins and to line cradleboards.

Muskrats and beaver also feed on this prolific plant — muskrats by choice; it is their preferred food. Beaver eat it by necessity when there is not enough aspen bark available.

Cattail marshes are the home to the sora (rail), long-billed marsh wrens, red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds. A few ducks, such as mallard, and Canada geese nest along the shores and pull up small roots for food. Cattails are a very useful plant.