This Low­coun­try plant of­fers shel­ter to an­i­mals, help with pol­lu­tion, and, if you dare, din­ner too

The Beaufort Gazette (Sunday) - - Lowcountry Life - BY VICKY MCMIL­LAN Spe­cial to The Is­land Packet/ The Beau­fort Gazette

Euell Gib­bons, the 1960’s author of guides to edi­ble wild plants, fa­mously re­ferred to cat-tails as the “su­per­mar­ket of the swamp.”

For cen­turies, var­i­ous parts of this ubiq­ui­tous marsh plant have been val­ued as a year-round food source. Young shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Im­ma­ture flower spikes can be en­joyed like corn on the cob. The pollen works as a thick­ener or flour sub­sti­tute, and even the starchy rhi­zomes (creep­ing, un­der­ground stems) can be dried and pre­pared into flour.

These days, most of us don’t reg­u­larly cook up cat-tails for din­ner. But these com­mon plants re­main a fa­mil­iar fea­ture of wet­lands across the coun­try. World­wide there are some 30 kinds of cat-tails (Typha); three species oc­cur in North Amer­ica, of which two are na­tive. They’re easy to rec­og­nize by their sword-like green leaves and tall, club-shaped stalks that are green at first and even­tu­ally turn brown in the fall.

When it’s in bloom, a cat-tail stalk com­prises dense clus­ters of mi­nus­cule flow­ers. The “male” flow­ers are packed to­gether in a thin, pointed spike at the top of the stem. The “fe­male” flow­ers are in a thicker, cigar-shaped spike on the same stem, not far be­low them. As the male flow­ers ma­ture, they re­lease clouds of pow­dery, yel­low pollen. Soon they wither away.

But the fe­male flower spike morphs into a slowly dis­in­te­grat­ing, cot­tony mass of tiny dry fruits, each con­tain­ing a sin­gle seed and equipped with hairs that aid dis­per­sal by the wind. Cat-tails also spread via their rhi­zomes, some­times form­ing im­pen­e­tra­ble thick­ets and crowd­ing out other veg­e­ta­tion. In such sit­u­a­tions, they may be con­sid­ered in­va­sive weeds.

But a cat-tail marsh can also be an in­valu­able re­source for wildlife. Fish, frogs, sala­man- ders, and other an­i­mals de­pend on cat-tails for cover and as habi­tat for feed­ing and re­pro­duc­ing. Red-winged Black­birds and many other birds es­tab­lish ter­ri­to­ries and build nests within cat-tail stands, and muskrats feast on the rhi­zomes.

Re­cently, cat-tail marshes are also be­ing used to ab­sorb wa­ter and soil con­tam­i­nants and to mon­i­tor lo­cal lev­els of wa­ter pol­lu­tion.

Spe­cial to The Is­land Packet/ The Beau­fort Gazette

For cen­turies, var­i­ous parts of cat-tails, a ubiq­ui­tous marsh plant, have been val­ued as a year-round food source.

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