Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 11, 2007

A Stupid Name

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:05 pm

  I suppose that I’ve let it slip out in the past that I don’t really like cats. For the sake of dramatic theatre (for the benefit of my kids) I’ve even been known to react with disappointment when I see one make it safely across the road ahead of a car. Kittens are cute, but they are basically cat seeds that grow into the full grown product, so I keep my emotional distance from them.  I did meet a cat that I liked, once.

  I will freely admit that this anti-feline bias has tainted my reaction to the naming of the cattail plant.  The brown seed head of this common marsh plant does not look like a cat’s tail at all. It looks like a hot dog on a stick.  When it erupts late in the season into a fluffy spike, it looks like a smoking hot dog. I think it’s a bad name, but it’s a bit too late to do anything about it.

  It was the great Swedish Biologist Carl Linnaeus who named this group of plants way back in 1753. He dubbed this group of plants with the name Typha, a designation apparently originating in the Greek word for either “bog,” “smoke emitting,” or “reed” -depending on which source you believe. There is no cat connotation to be found. Of the two cattail species found here – Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia – the species name (the second part) means “broad-leaved” and “narrow-leaved” respectively (not big cat, skinny cat). In Europe, these plants are known as “bulrushes” or “reed-mace”.

  There is an obscure reference of a common name being “Cat-O-Nine-Tails,” but the plant’s similarity to this instrument of naval discipline is even more obscure. So, the “Cat-tail” thing can only boil down to one thing: For a very brief time of year, the male flower spike of the cat-tail does kinda look like a cat’s tail.

  It is as a begrudging service to humankind that I point this fact out.  This is the only time of year that you can actually see the part of the cattail plant that looks like the trailing appendage of a feline. If you don’t make an attempt to see this by the end of next week (late June) it will be too late.  After that point all you will find are green hotdogs.

  Cat-tails grow rapidly once the sprouts begin to poke up out of the surface of shallow marshes, ponds and roadside ditches in early April. By late spring the long sword like leaves have reached a height of about 5 feet and the central flower spikes begin to emerge from the center stalk. Our local cat-tails started to flower last week.

  This spike consists of two parts (take a look here). The upper part is the male (staminate) flower and the lower portion is the female (pistillate) part. One good way to tell the difference between the Broad-leaved and Narrow-leaved type (aside from the obvious leaf width difference) is to look at this flower spike. There is a distinct space between the male and female flower on the narrow leaf (the type in my drawing) and the two flowers touch on the broad leaf (see an illustration here).  When the male flower begins to “open up” it really does sorta look like a …well, I don’t need to say it again do I?  Go back and look at it one more time and judge for yourself.

  There are thousands of tiny flowers that make up the hairy looking male flower. Each miniscule floweret looks like a yellow match with a green striking head, but you won’t see this unless you use a 10X magnifying lens. These eventually shed a cascade of bright yellow pollen into the air when prompted by a stiff breeze or a curious naturalist. To prevent self pollination, the pollen on any given plant is released before the female portion is receptive.  A bed of cat-tails really do look like they are smoking when the pollen stage is at peak (perhaps the reason for one of the Greek word designations).

  Down below the male, the female inflorescence consists of up to 300,000 equally tiny flowerets- each with a tiny central pistil (Somebody else counted them, I didn’t). These are fertilized by the pollen and develop into seeds over the course of the summer.  The female flower eventually swells and turns Oscar Meyer brown, while the male flower falls apart and breaks off.

  I will return to the cat-tail story later this summer when the seed heads have attained their fluffy appearance and the leaves are at full height. At that point I’ll show you how to become a member of the ISPSWCP (International Society of People who Sleep With Cattail Pillows).  For the moment, however, there remains one more ephemeral educational opportunity to experience. You can eat the green male flowers.

  Before the male flowers fully emerge from their sheaths to become cat’s tails, you can harvest them and bring them home for supper (see here). Remove the leafy covering (see here), immerse them in water and bring them to a boil (see here).   After a few minutes of steady boiling they are ready to eat (drain them first).  Slap on a pat of butter and some salt and you will find yourself enjoying a rare seasonal treat.  The process will be something like eating off a tiny corncob since the center spike remains intact.

  Should you miss the freshly emerged males and find they have already gone to pollen, you can still try another form of cattail cuisine.  Take a Mason jar and fill it with the golden yellow product (it doesn’t take long if you take each flower head and rattle it inside the jar) and mix it with regular flour to bake biscuits or bread. Don’t use too much, though, because it makes for some pretty heavy fare.

  Eating these two springtime cat-tail products will make you forget all about the stupid name thing. The flowers have some medicinal value to boot. The pollen has been used for external treatment of tapeworms, injuries, and diarrhea.  I’ve been eating cat-tail pollen for years, and I’ve never had tape-worms nor have I had any serious injuries – two out of three ain’t bad.

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