During my drive to and from different communites within the county, I have the pleasure of seeing what grows along the roadsides and in the ditches.
Weeds, for sure, but some of those weeds are definitely worthy of backyard gardens. Just check out garden centers and plant catalogs and you will find cultivated species of sumac, goldenrod and the most common of all, daylilies.
This time of year, there isn't much in the way of color, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a look. The brown, tan and beige of dried stalks, plumes and seedpods are evidence that winter will soon lay them down where they will decompose and become fertilizer for next year's growth. Those that don't lay down become structures that hold snow and ice; another lovely view on a winter day.
One particular ditch-weed plant that gets a bad rap much of the time are cattails. They may be weeds and they may be rather coarse and plain in their brown-ness, but I find them fascinating.
My husband finds them fascinating, too, so much so that he put them in his garden pond many years ago. To keep them from become invasive, as is their habit, he confined the plants to a large, five gallon bucket that sits on the bottom of the pond. Every winter, the stalks die back to their container, where they are invisible to those of us looking across the water's surface. In spring, we watch and wait for the thin, sword-shaped leaves to begin to break through that surface. It is exciting to see those tender young stalks because it means spring is well under way.
Common cattail (Typha latifolia), is hardy deep into Canada and loves to grow where water sits and the soil is boggy. Although the plants propagate by seed, more than 200,000 from each fuzzy spike, the plant also spreads by underground rhizomes. Cattails should never be planted directly into the bottom soil of a bare-floor garden pond. Even in rubber lined ponds, like my husband's, care should be taken not to let the plant escape its container or those rhizomes could take hold of the stones and sediment that ultimately end up on the bottom.
Cattails should be, and sometimes are, listed in herb encyclopedias because they are known to have quite a few uses, including as food. The plants have been used as roofing thatch, to weave baskets and mats, and as fiber sources to make rayon and other synthetic fabrics.
When the brown, fuzzy spikes ripen and burst, the soft, white down that erupts is the fruiting body of the plant where the seeds are hidden among the silk. They are transported by the wind, but cattail silk once had its own usefulness, including insulation, stuffing material for pillows and mattresses and even in baby diapers.
Cattails also are edible. If you are forced to live like "Survivorman," there are at least five parts of the plant that can be eaten. The entire plant isn't edible all the time, but at any time during the year, there is some part of the plant you can eat.
In early spring, tender young leaf tips are edible. Once the stalks are fairly good size, you can pull them out from the base of the plant and enjoy the white section near the bottom. When the seed heads are still young and green, they can be eaten raw or cooked, and when the yellow pollen begins to form, it can be used as a thickener for sauces and gravies. The thick, white roots, similar in growth to potato tubers, can be harvested in fall and winter and ground into flour or made into a paste. I've also heard of the rhizomes being grated raw into salads. If you're really ambitious, you can singe away the silk from a ripened spike, leaving the seeds behind, which also are edible and are said to have a nutty taste.
Cattail, as an edible plant, isn't part of my family's diet, but isn't it nice to think of how many uses this plant has under its belt when we see it along our roadsides?
And that isn't all. Scientists have recently begun looking for ways to use cattails as a biofuel. Studies have been done on using cattails to produce ethanol and it is believed that cattails can use pollutants as nutrients, making them a good plant for cleaning the air. Think of the stand of cattails growing near nuclear power plants or landfills, gobbling up all the nasty stuff that we might otherwise be breathing.
What's more, they primarily grow in wetland areas that don't provide space for anything else. Here, cattails are virtually out of everyone's way and don't take up valuable land that could be used for other crops or forests.
I think cattails must be the convenience stores of the plant world.
In our little garden pond, cattails are like a carnival for the fish. They love to play among the stems, often reaching their heads up out of the water to nibble at the tender shoots. They play hide and seek among the leaves, or at least we like to think that's what they're doing. Although the plants are in a container, roots still find their way out through drainage holes and cracks the plants made in the heavy plastic. The fish nibble on those roots as though they had been turned loose in the food court at the mall.
With water lettuce, cultivated bullrush and water hyacinth plants taking up much of the water surface in summer, our lone stand of cattails are vertical eye-candy to an otherwise horizonal landscape.
I can't imagine our little pond without its stand of cattails.