Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

October 22, 2008

Seed for Thought

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 7:43 pm


The dry wispy sound of windblown cattail stalks is as much a part of the autumn landscape as the more familiar shuffle of tree leaves. To hear this sound you’ve got to put yourself close to the wetland habitat where they grow and lend a patient ear. Although a few clustered ditch plants will do, it is best to take in an entire symphony of them along one of our coastal marshes. I think you’ll find the sound somewhat comforting and reassuring (listen here to Cattails Talking). These plants have grown from mud level to nearly twelve feet tall in a matter of a few short months. They have expressed the earth’s wealth through their productive greenness and now are  entering their equally productive second stage. No, their season is not ended, it has turned face. The wind is there to remind you of this fact.

   The long slender leaves stole every bit of the reflective space next to the dense stands and lorded over the marsh. Now the leaves are browning, shrinking, and curling down in obeyance to the late season – their crucial starches being recalled back to the mother root (aka rhizome). In their new role, they will provide cover for wildlife as arching shelters. Snow cover will eventually shingle the leafy arches and the frozen water beneath them will become the floor over which mice, mink, rabbits, pheasants and a whole host of creatures will tread while seeking refuge.

  When the hot dog like seed heads were developing over the latter half of the summer, the stalks that bore them were dwarfed by the surrounding leaves.  Each head contains 100,000 to 260,000 plus seeds packed into a brown sausage spike. The actual seeds, only about 1 mm long a piece, are attached to the inner stem and are equipped with silky down.  Now that the leaves are fading, the mature seed heads project above the canopy and into the wind.  The stiff breezes are beginning to pull them apart and the seeds are carried aloft on their downy parachutes.

  The disrobing of the cattail heads is a long slow striptease that will last through to next spring.  During this early phase of the performance large chunks of cattail down will peel away like sheep wool during a shearing. Later on, the process becomes sporadic – requiring stiffer and stiffer winds in order to yield.  Most of these seeds land on the open water and collect on the surface in such a way as to give the water an icy look (see here).  This fuzzy ice will soon enough give way to the real thing and the seeds will sink.

  Someone once calculated that there are approximately 500,000,000 pounds of cat-tail down in the United States (“Estimated” is certainly an understatement here). Since the seeds are about 40% of that weight, this means that there are an awful heavy lot of seeds being spread to the four winds across this land of ours. Very very very few of these will germinate, but a few will make their attempt next spring.

  To get a cattail to grow from seed, it has to be saturated in water, surrounded by mucky soil, and receive a lot of sunlight. Those that don’t grow right away haven’t lost hope, however, because they can survive in the soil for decades.  One source indicates that that viability can be as long as a century. 

  The dead leaves will remain in place at least until the Red-winged Blackbirds return in March. The female Red-wings use the leaves to weave their nests. The cattail season, you see,  never really ends.

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