How to Grow Common Cattail Plants

Cattail plants beside a pond

krblokhin / Getty Images

In This Article

You might also know Common Cattails (Typha latifolia) as bulrushes. These perennial aquatic plants are widely associated with growing in shallow waters in boggy marshes and wetland areas across temperate regions in North America.

Cattails have an upright growth habit with basal leaves, a long, narrow upright stem, and a tall cylindrical inflorescence. With the right conditions, these plants can grow up to three meters tall. They have a rhizomatous root system and spread rapidly to form attractive thick clumps.

Cattails are monoecious, so the male and female flowers grow on the same plant. The male flowers, which are a shade of yellow, form at the top, and the female ones develop underneath in shades of green. The flowers appear during the summer, and in the fall, the tip of the stalk becomes bare when the male blooms drop off. The female flowers change to a brown shade, and this is when the iconic sausage-shaped spike is visible. It might be stretching it somewhat, but the common name from these plants comes from the fact that it could be said the mature flowering plant looks a bit like a kitties tail!

Cattails can spread rather aggressively, but aside from this, they are known to be a beneficial plant in their natural habitat. The tall, dense clumps provide cover and nutrition for wildlife. Birds often create nesting areas within cattail growing areas.

Over the years, cattail roots have also been used as a starchy food source and the stems have been harvested for making thatch materials, paper, furniture, headwear, and more. Known for being an effective biomass source, they are often added to compost heaps and used as fuel.

In garden landscapes, cattails are well suited to being grown around pounds, in water gardens, or in areas prone to flooding - they can easily grow in water up to ten inches deep. They can also be a good choice for erosion control on wet slopes, and they make a great privacy screen too. The attractive stems are frequently added to flower arrangements in fresh or dried form.

It's great that these plants are so easy-to-grow, but their fast spreading habit means they can quickly overtake the areas they are grown in. If you have limited space or are worried about them choking out other species, your cattails would be best kept in containers.

Botanical Name Typha latifolia
Common Name Common cattail, Broadleaf cattail, Bulrush
Plant Type Perennial, Herbaceous
Mature Size Up to 10 ft. tall
Sun Exposure Full Sun, Partial Shade
Soil Type Moist
Soil pH Acid, Neutral, Alkaline 
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Brown
Hardiness Zones 3 - 10, USA
Native Area Much of the Northern Hemisphere
Toxicity Can absorb environmental toxins

Cattail Plant Care

With the right conditions, you can develop a cattail colony in no time at all. They are fast-growing and require little maintenance. They do, of course, need the right amount of moisture, though, and they can become invasive if not kept in check in bottomless containers or something similar. Their spreading rhizomes can be tough to get rid of once established. However, they are a great choice in boggy environments where other plants struggle to survive.

Light

Cattails need a full sun or partial shade position to thrive. They can't survive in full shade.

Soil

These plants benefit from a rich, loamy soil that contains plenty of organic matter. They can, however, grow in most soil types.

Water

As you would expect from a marshland species, cattails need a lot of moisture to thrive, and this is the most vital element of their care. The soil should be kept wet, and this is why they do best in areas where this can happen naturally. These plants can grow in standing water, with some reports suggesting they will still survive even if this is as much as two feet deep.

Temperature and Humidity

Cattails are most commonly found in temperate regions of North America, but they can also grow in subtropical and elevated tropical regions.

Although young shoots don't cope with frost well, established cattails can handle harsh winters in their dormant state.

Fertilizer

Fertilizing cattails isn't generally required or recommended.

Is Cattail Toxic?

Cattails aren't toxic and, as already mentioned, the roots can be used as a food source. They are the type of plants, however, that are known to be an excellent absorber of pollutants. This can be helpful for environmental reasons, but it means care should be taken if you, unusually, plan to harvest your plants as a food source and you live in a polluted urban environment.

Propagating Cattail Plants

Cattails can self-seed freely and spread through their rhizomes. These rhizomes also make it easy to propagate if you want to add a new cluster of plants to a different large landscape area. Young shoots can also be divided in the spring when they are between five and ten inches tall. Just make sure a decent amount of undamaged root is attached.

How to Grow Common Cattail Plants From Seed

If growing cattails from seeds, they need a lot of water for successful germination. They should be sown on the surface of the soil and kept very moist, to the point of being soggy.