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Narrowleaf & Hybrid Cattails
(Typha angustifolia, Typha x glauca)
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Species at a Glance
Cattails are aquatic perennials that grow in wetland areas and produce distinct velvety brown spikes of flowers. The two most widespread species in the United States are the native common cattail, also called the broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia), and the non-native narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia). The hybrid cattail is produced when these two species cross, giving it characteristics of both species.
Leaves: Long, narrow (5-15 mm [0.2-0.6 in]), flat leaves originate at the base of the stem from each shoot and spread outward as they rise into the air, reaching 0.9-1.8 m (3-6 ft) in height.
Flowers: Dense, fuzzy, cylindrical spikes are located at the end of the stem. The flower is divided into two distinct male and female flowers separated by a 3-10 cm (1.2-3.9 in) gap. Lighter brown male flowers (staminate) are located above the female (pistillate) flowers, which are often green during bloom, turning dark brown during seed maturation.
Fruits/Seeds: Cigar-shaped fruits about 5-15 cm (2-5.9 in) long contain soft downy seeds about 1 mm (0.04 in) in size.
Stems/Roots: The flowering stalks are light green, stiff, round in cross-section, and grow up to 3 m (10 ft) tall.
Both the narrowleaf and hybrid cattails can be easily confused with the native common cattail. The common cattail has both male and female flower types directly next to each other, whereas the invasive cattails have a clear separation of male and female flowers and the leaves are narrower, deeper green, and typically extend beyond the spike.
Stands of non-native cattail can be found in a wide variety of wetland habitats, including marshes, lakeshores, river backwaters, and roadside ditches. This prolific plant can grow in disturbed areas as well as brackish and polluted waters of depths nearing 0.9 m (3 ft).
The flower head of the parent plant can produce 250,000 seeds, which can remain viable for up to 100 years waiting for the right amount of water and sunlight to germinate. Seeds are dispersed by wind and once established, additional spread occurs through an extensive underground root system.
Narrowleaf cattails are believed to have originated from the dry ballast of European ships on the Atlantic seaboard. The hybrid cattail may occur wherever both the native and the narrow-leaved species are present. These plants have spread throughout the United States, and all three cattail species are found in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Note: Distribution data for this species may have changed since the publication of the Mid-Atlantic Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species (2016), the source of information for this description.
Cattails grow in dense monocultures that can dominate shorelines near open water areas, eliminating habitat and replacing native plants that are important for waterfowl and wildlife. They are also thought to be allelopathic, meaning they produce chemicals which prevent the growth of other plant species.
Information for this species profile comes from the Mid-Atlantic Field Guide to Aquatic Invasive Species (2016).