These two views of Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity across Sapsucker Woods Pond on a March afternoon are separated by 12 months, a year. Wilson Trail, Sapsucker Woods, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, Tompkins County, New York.
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2023 using the IPhone 14 ProMax triple camera, raw format, edited on the phone
In the foreground is the cattail plant, the North American species Typha latifolia. There are over 30 species in this useful genera.
2022 using the IPhone 7 back camera
Many parts of the Typha plant are edible to humans. Before the plant flowers, the tender inside of the shoots can be squeezed out and eaten raw or cooked. The starchy rhizomes are nutritious with a protein content comparable to that of maize or rice. They can be processed into flour with 266 kcal per 100 grams and are most often harvested from late autumn to early spring. They are fibrous, and the starch must be scraped or sucked from the tough fibers. Baby shoots emerging from the rhizomes, which are sometimes subterranean, can be picked and eaten raw. Also underground is a carbohydrate lump which can be peeled and eaten raw or cooked like a potato. The plant is one championed by survival experts because various parts can be eaten throughout the year. Plants growing in polluted water can accumulate lead and pesticide residues in their rhizomes, and these should not be eaten.
The rind of young stems can be peeled off, and the tender white heart inside can be eaten raw or boiled and eaten like asparagus. This food has been popular among the Cossacks in Russia and has been called “Cossack asparagus.” The leaf bases can be eaten raw or cooked, especially in late spring when they are young and tender. In early summer the sheath can be removed from the developing green flower spike, which can then be boiled and eaten like corn on the cob. In mid-summer when the male flowers are mature, the pollen can be collected and used as a flour supplement or thickener.
The seeds have a high linoleic acid content and can be used to feed cattle and chickens. They can also be found in African countries like Ghana.
Harvesting cattail removes nutrients from the wetland that would otherwise return via the decomposition of decaying plant matter. Floating mats of cattails remove nutrients from eutrophic bodies of freshwater.
For local native tribes around Lake Titicaca in Peru and Bolivia, Typha were among the most important plants and every part of the plant had multiple uses. For example, they were used to construct rafts and other boats.
During World War II, the United States Navy used the down of Typha as a substitute for kapok in life vests and aviation jackets. Tests showed that even after 100 hours of submersion, the buoyancy was still effective.
Typha are used as thermal insulation in buildings as an organic alternative to conventional insulating materials such as glass wool or stone wool.
Typha stems and leaves can be used to make paper. It is strong with a heavy texture and it is hard to bleach, so it is not suitable for industrial production of graphical paper. In 1853, considerable amounts of cattail paper were produced in New York, due to a shortage of raw materials. In 1948, French scientists tested methods for annual harvesting of the leaves. Because of the high cost, these methods were abandoned, no further research was done. Today Typha is used to make decorative paper.
Fibers up to 4 meters long can be obtained from the stems when they are treated mechanically or chemically with sodium hydroxide. The stem fibers resemble jute and can be used to produce raw textiles. The leaf fibers can be used as an alternative to cotton and linen in clothing. The yield of leaf fiber is 30 to 40 percent and Typha glauca can produce 7 to 10 tons per hectare annually.
Typha can be used as a source of starch to produce ethanol. Because of their high productivity in northern latitudes, Typha are considered to be a bioenergy crop.
The seed hairs were used by some indigenous peoples of the Americas[which?] as tinder for starting fires. Some tribes also used Typha down to line moccasins, and for bedding, diapers, baby powder, and cradleboards. One Native American word for Typha meant “fruit for papoose’s bed”. Typha down is still used in some areas to stuff clothing items and pillows. Typha can be dipped in wax or fat and then lit as a candle, the stem serving as a wick. Without the use of wax or fat it will smolder slowly, somewhat like incense, and may repel insects.
The flower stalks can be made into chopsticks. The leaves can be treated to weave into baskets, mats, or sandals. The rushes are harvested and the leaves often dried for later use in chair seats. Re-wetted, the leaves are twisted and wrapped around the chair rungs to form a densely woven seat that is then stuffed (usually with the left over rush).
Small-scale experiments have indicated that Typha are able to remove arsenic from drinking water. The boiled rootstocks have been used as a diuretic for increasing urination, or mashed to make a jelly-like paste for sores, boils, wounds, burns, scabs, and smallpox pustules.
Cattail pollen is used as a banker source of food for predatory insects and mites (such as Amblyseius swirskii) in greenhouses. The cattail, or, as it is commonly referred to in the American Midwest, the sausage tail, has been the subject of multiple artist renditions, gaining popularity in the mid-twentieth century. The term, sausage tail, derives from the similarity that cattails have with sausages, a name given to the plant by the Midwest Polish community who had noticed a striking similarity between the plant and a common Polish dish, kiełbasa.
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