Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

June 17, 2012

Ahh, That’s Why it’s Called a Cat-tail!

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 2:58 pm

 “A cat-tail plant seems so poorly named,

unless you’ve seen one in June.

when it flowers atop with a long slender wand,

like a cat’s tail outlined by the moon.”

 If you are the logical sort, you might have had a hard time figuring out why Cat-tail plants are called Cat-tail plants. For most of the time they look like a hot dog on a stick- or a corn dog to be precise  They don’t really look like a cat’s rear appendage at all. It would have been better to call them “Corn Dog” plants and save years of confused and anguished conversations such as:

 “Look Timmy, this is a cat-tail plant”

“Why is it called a cat-tail plant?”

“Because it…it…was named that”

 “Why was it named that – it looks more like a Corn-dog on a stick?”

“Yes, it does, Timmy, but Corn-dogs were not around when this plant was named long ago”

“Why weren’t Corn-dogs around – what did people eat at the baseball games?”

“Baseball games weren’t around then either”

“What did people eat then?” 

“Cats, Timmy, they ate cats and all that was left was the tail after they ate them!”

“But these plants still don’t look like a Cats tail!”

“Well, you are right but…never mind. A very Smart Person named it long ago and that’s all that matters”

“They must not have been very smart then because it doesn’t lo…”

“Yes, Timmy, yes you are correct but…” “

…and if they ate cats they should have known better and…” 

“Yes, yes, you are right, Timmy.”

“…and, if they were smar…t……”

” Oh my gosh, will you look at the time! We’ve got to get going.”

“But you said we had all morning for this nature walk!”

“I forgot that we needed to get back and eat – er, I mean – feed the cat”

“You don’t even like the cat. You told me once that it should be thrown into the river.”

So, you get our drift. Fortunately, we are here to help. The next time you show Timmy a Cat-tail plant you can tell him that it is called a Cat-tail because during a brief two week period in early summer the plant produces a flower that really does look like a cat’s tail. Not to confuse the issue, but during this brief time there are two “corn dogs” on each plant. The top one is the male flower and the bottom one is the female flower. The male flower eventually produces a cloud of pollen, withers, and then falls off. This leaves the female flower to develop into that “corn dog-like” structure full of fluff and seeds.

That special flowering time of year is right now. Take Timmy out and show him a cat-tail plant and point out the cat’s tail curling off the top. This will end years of potential confusion and the telling of small white lies. People never ate cats and old-time people weren’t any smarter or dumber than we are now.  If you wish, you can mention that these plants were also known as Cooper’s Reed (used by barrel makers to wedge into cracks), Reed Mace (for another reason that is far too complicated to get into now) and even Bulrush (meaning big water plant).  Unfortunately most of these fancy names are European in origin and they only make sense in Europe, so we are pretty much stuck with Cat-tail.


  1. Another question answered……loved this story, Gerry.

    Comment by carol carney — June 25, 2012 @ 11:37 am

  2. […] that’s because I’ve never noticed the flower in June (see this illuminating post on Naturespeak).   This species can also be called common bulrush or great reedmace.  Utah State University has […]

    Pingback by Common Broadleaf Cattail « fizzynotions — September 16, 2012 @ 12:02 am

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