Phragmites vs Cattails

08/23/2018
by Gabrielle L. Wheeler

While I was growing up, I would sometimes go out collecting cattail heads with my grandmother during the summer. Now that I am an adult, I realize that probably the wetland that we visited was merely a swampy ditch at the end of the road, but as a child it seemed a wild adventure. We would cut off a few of the flowering heads and take them home, letting some remain as they were for decoration and cutting into others to investigate what was inside. Now that I am older, the cattails are gone and something else is in its place.

Phragmites (Phragmites australis) is an invasive wetland reed that aggressively outcompetes native plants, displacing wildlife at the same time. Commonly found around ponds, in wetlands, and disturbed areas with moist soils, phragmites is easily identified by its wispy seedheads and height of up to 15 feet. Seed propagation occurs by wind, passage on animals, or by humans moving contaminated soil or brush. Once established, phragmites spreads quickly not only by seed but also through the growth of rhizomes and stolons. In vegetative propagation via rhizomes, stems grow horizontally underground, then sprout a distance from the parent plant as a clone. Propagation via stolons, works in much the same way, but the horizontal stem grows above ground.

Our native broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia) has the characteristic brown flowering head that reminds of a cat’s tail, with a short spike pointing off the top. Cattails are widely known for being an edible wild food for humans. Cattails act as food and habitat for a myriad of wildlife as well, and the merge of phragmites through our wetlands leaves behind a wake of densely packed vegetation that doesn’t support our native wildlife populations. The role of wetlands in the larger picture is to sustain a balance of flora and fauna species but also to act as a filter for ground and surface waters. Thick-growing invasive wetland species have the capacity to alter water levels within the wetlands and encourage runoff that would otherwise be absorbed before hitting our larger waterways.

People can help reduce the spread of invasive plant species by planting native and avoiding moving dirt or clippings over large distances. For removal of phragmites on your property, it is best to contact your local cooperative extension for suggested methods. My childhood stand of cattails may now be phragmites, but if I keep my eyes open, I can still spot lots of cattails around. Seems as though it’s time to get my own children out there on a wetland adventure to experience the beauty of cattails too.


Gabrielle Wheeler is a freelance writer from the heart of the Finger Lakes Region. On her parenting blog, aplaceforlittlesproutstogrow.com, she writes about tending to the whole child and parent. She also works in a local health center as an interpreter/patient navigator.