Q: Should we leave cattails in the pond for the animals?
Cynthia – Greenfield, OH
A: Cattails may be a nuisance in ponds and lakes, but they’re not all bad – particularly if you’re an animal. All kinds of critters, in fact, use the plant as a source of food, shelter and supplies.
Cattails are common aquatic plants that grow from 3 to 10 feet tall in dense colonies around the margins of ponds and lakes. In the spring, the green strap-like foliage grows from large, creeping, below-the-ground rhizomes. As the seasons progress, the cattail’s leaves and spikes—or the plant’s brown cylindrical flower—grow. And when the flowers open and let loose their fluffy seeds, the cattails spread and propagate new plants throughout the lake.
Cornucopia for Critters
A small, managed area of cattails can provide an ideal habitat for amphibians, insects, birds and fish. These aquatic critters use the plants for all sorts of things, including:
- Nesting Spot: Red-winged blackbirds often use cattails for a perching and nesting spot. Water fowl, like mallards and Canadian geese, also use the tall, tightly bunched leaves and stalks for nesting. Turkeys—as well as deer, raccoon and other mammals—use cattails as cover from predators.
- Hatchery/Nursery: Birds and mammals aren’t the only ones that find refuge in cattails. Insects and amphibians, like dragonflies, frogs and salamanders, will lay their eggs in the brush and water between the stalks. Below the surface, fish and other aquatic creatures will hide and nest in the growth.
- Multi-Purpose Material: The cattail fluff that explodes from the plant’s spikes makes excellent nest-making material for birds –and that’s not all it’s good for. Native Americans used it to cushion moccasins and papoose boards. Pioneers used it to dress wounds, start camp fires, and stuff quilts, cushions, mattresses and dolls. And the military used the water-resistant, buoyant fluff to stuff life vests. Besides the fluff, the cattail’s leaves were used to make mats and webbing, and the stalks were used to make fiber and adhesive.
- Grocery Store: An integral part of the pond ecosystem’s food chain, cattails’ leaves, shoots and roots make a tasty buffet for muskrat, geese and snails, while the plant’s underwater stalks feed fish, frogs and turtles. Humans can eat cattails, too. The rhizomes can be used like other root vegetables, and they can be dried and ground into flour. Young green shoots, which taste like cucumber, can be chopped into salads. Green flowering stalks can be boiled and eaten like sweetcorn.
Pond Owner Considerations
Allowing a cattail stand to grow in your pond for the animals’ benefit is a great idea—and those critters will appreciate what you leave for them—but there are some things you should keep in mind.
If you’re trying to deter troublesome predators, like raccoon and muskrats, keep the cattails cut back. This exposes their hiding and hunting spots, so they’ll be less likely to stop by for some sushi. Use pond weed cutters and a rake to remove dead debris and growing cattails, particularly around the pond’s perimeter. While you’re at it, add some MuckAway™ to the water to help break down muck and other decomposing materials.
Your best bet is to mark out an area where you’d like your cattail stand to grow, and then clean up what grows beyond the border. You’ll provide an ecosystem for the animals while preventing your pond from being overtaken.
Pond Talk: How do you manage cattails in your pond?