By: Bonnie L. Grant, Certified Urban Agriculturist
Cattails are classics of boggy and marshy regions. They grow on the edges of riparian zones in moist soil or silt. Cattail seed heads are easily recognizable and resemble corn dogs. They are even edible at certain times of development. Collecting cattail seeds and planting them successfully requires timing and the right conditions. The wind spread seed is fairly adaptable to container growing or you can plant in spring straight outdoors. Read this article to learn what to do with cattail seeds and how to propagate this plant with a long history of use.
Collecting Cattail Seeds
Saving cattail seeds and planting them where you want these fabulous plants helps create a wild animal sanctuary and waterfowl habitat. It is quite easy to do and an excellent way to replant a devastated marsh or waterway. A single cattail can contain up to 25,000 seeds, which can go a long way to repopulating a native species. Some tips on how to plant cattail seeds once you have harvested them, can speed you on the way to a useful and beautiful stand of these one-time native foods.
Cattail seed saving was probably practiced by indigenous people for hundreds of years. The plant was a popular food and cordage, and keeping existing stands healthy would have been important. While the plant reseeds itself readily, in disturbed sites, reestablishing a colony may require some human intervention.
Saving cattail seeds from wild plants will provide the raw materials for such an endeavor and doesn’t require the harvest of more than 1 or 2 seed heads. Cattails need a wet area with low salinity, water flow and plenty of nutrient influx. Seeds will germinate in a wide range of conditions and temperatures provided there is adequate moisture. You may also choose to start seed in containers and plant them outdoors after freezing temperatures have passed.
What to Do with Cattail Seeds
Wait until the seed head has ripened. You can tell when this is by the deep rusty brown color and dry texture of the seed head. Often, the seeds will have started to burst open and show fuzzy white structures which help the seed disperse through wind.
The best time for collecting cattail seeds is in late summer to very early fall. Cut off the seed head and separate the seed from the stem. Do this by placing the head in a bag and stripping off the seed into the bag. This can be facilitated by allowing the head to dry for 1 or 2 weeks in a paper bag.
Water promotes germination, so soak the seeds in water for 24 hours prior to planting.
How to Plant Cattail Seeds
Compost makes a great medium for seeding cattails. Fill cardboard containers or egg crates with compost that has a third fine sand mixed into it to promote draining.
Separate each seed and plant them on the surface of the moistened medium and cover with a fine sift of sand. You can then place containers in a larger container with a level of water that reaches your second knuckle or create a humidity chamber for the plants. To do this, cover the containers with the seed with plastic or a clear dome. Mist plants to keep the top surface of the soil moderately wet.
In most cases, germination will occur in two weeks provided temperatures are at least 65 degrees Fahrenheit (18 C.). Higher temperatures cause earlier germination. Keep seedlings well-watered and transplant them in late summer to a moist location.
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How to Harvest Cattails
Last Updated: November 2, 2020 References
This article was co-authored by Lauren Kurtz. Lauren Kurtz is a Naturalist and Horticultural Specialist. Lauren has worked for Aurora, Colorado managing the Water-Wise Garden at Aurora Municipal Center for the Water Conservation Department. She earned a BA in Environmental and Sustainability Studies from Western Michigan University in 2014.
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Cattails (Typha) are one of the best survival foods. The roots can be dried and turned into flour. The leaves can be used for salads, the stems can be boiled and the flowers can be roasted.  X Research source You can even dry their spikes to make torches and weave baskets out of their fibers. They are extremely productive in terms of flour production, with one acre of cattails potentially producing 6,475 pounds of flour.  X Research source The roots are best harvested in the winter, whereas the shoots are freshest in the spring and early summer.  X Research source
In late fall and winter, the cattail's leaves and flowers die off, although they frequently remain standing in swamps and marshy areas. The cattail hibernates in its rhizome throughout the winter. The best time to dig rhizomes is after the plant has died off and before the ground freezes in winter, or after it thaws in early spring. Rhizomes dug in winter can be stored until spring. Place rhizomes in a paper bag and store in a moderately cool, stable temperature such as in a basement or pantry.