How to Grow and Care for Common Cattail

Common cattail plant with long narrow stems and tall brown cylindrical inflorescence closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

You might 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 fast-growing plants can reach up to 10 feet tall. They have a rhizomatous root system and spread rapidly to form attractive thick clumps. The tall, dense clumps provide cover and nutrition for wildlife.

In garden landscapes, cattails are well suited for growing around ponds, in water gardens, or areas prone to flooding; they can easily grow in water up to 10 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.

When planting a cattail, make sure you select a species such as Typha latifolia, which is native to parts of the United States, instead of an introduced species that can become invasive.

Common Name Common cattail, broadleaf cattail, bulrush
Botanical Name Typha latifolia
Family Typhaceae
Plant Type Perennial, herbaceous
Mature Size 5-10 ft. tall, 18-24 in. wide
Sun Exposure Full, partial
Soil Type Moist, loamy
Soil pH Acidic, neutral, alkaline 
Bloom Time Summer
Flower Color Brown
Hardiness Zones 3-10 (USDA)
Native Area Europe, North America, Asia

Cattail Plant Care

With the right conditions, you can develop a cattail colony in no time at all that requires little maintenance. They do, of course, need the right amount of moisture, 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.

Cattails need no help getting through even harsh winters in their native climate. These hardy plants will come back reliably year after year.

Warning

Non-native cattails are considered an invasive species in some areas, as they can grow aggressively through spreading rhizomes. They have been known to grow in dense clumps that affect irrigation, impede waterways, and choke out other plants in the area. Keeping them well-controlled is vital to maintaining a lovely habitat around ponds and streams.

Common cattail plant with long narrow brown stems with a sausage-shaped spike on ends in front of water

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Common cattail plant on thin stems with sausage-shaped spikes covered with fuzzy cream-colored blooms in the snow

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Common cattail plant with sausage-shaped spikes on thin narrow stems closeup

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Common cattail plant on tall narrow stems with brown spikes on ends near garden pond

The Spruce / Evgeniya Vlasova

Light

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

Soil

These plants benefit from 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, which is why they do best in areas where this happens naturally. These plants can thrive in standing water.

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.

Types of Cattails

There are three other cattail species that might interest the home gardener but they are native to Europe and Asia and as such might become invasive if not controlled:

  • Dwarf bulrush (T. minima) is a dwarf variety of cattail that reaches up to only 2 feet tall with interesting, rounded catkins.
  • Graceful cattail (T. laxmannii) has spiraling threads on the end of its leaves and striking, golden catkins that are about the size of a walnut.
  • Narrowleaf cattail (T. angustifolia) offers exactly what the name suggests; narrow leaves as opposed to the broader leaves of the other varieties.

Pruning

It's advisable to prune back cattail plants in bogs during the fall when their growth slows down. Cut the cattails with sharp pruning shears about 8 inches above the surface of the water they're standing in, or down to the ground if they are not in standing water. New growth will appear in the spring.

Propagating Cattail Plants

Cattails can self-seed freely and spread through their rhizomes. These rhizomes 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 5 and 10 inches tall.

  1. Dig up the plants with a shovel, making sure a decent amount of undamaged root is attached.
  2. Divide the plants into manageable sections and plant them in a new suitable wet location, near a pond or another location where they get flooded and stand up to 12 inches deep in water.

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. Sowing them at the edge of a pond or other marshy area makes this process much easier for the home gardener.

If you are starting cattail seeds indoors, begin by soaking the seeds for 24 hours, then cleaning away the cottony debris that often surrounds them. Let the seeds dry, then press them on top of a 2-inch container filled with a mixture of seed-starting compost and coarse sand. Cover them to a depth of 1/4 inch with compost. Cover the plants with a plastic dome and use a germination mat set to 100 degrees Fahrenheit to provide ample warmth. Water at least once a day with a spray bottle to ensure proper moisture. Germination takes about two weeks.

Transplant strong seedlings into the soil in early autumn, preferably right after rainfall so the soil is very moist.

Common Pests

Cattails don't face the typical insects that many other plants do. Instead, they are often eaten by creatures of much larger size, such as crayfish or muskrats. Since cattails are so prolific, animals eating them shouldn't be an issue.

FAQ
  • Are cattails edible?

    Every part of the cattail plant is edible, and there are many recipes online that will show you how to prepare a dish of cattails.

  • Can cattails grow indoors?

    Though you could grow dwarf varieties of cattails indoors, keeping them wet enough to thrive would be a significant struggle. Therefore, it's best to keep these tall beauties outside.

  • What are alternatives to the common cattail?

    Some plants are just as attractive but don't have the same invasive tendencies. Consider a native willow, big blue stem, and Joe Pye weed instead.