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Close up of cattail

This wetland plant is very common to Wisconsin's marshes, ponds, ditches, rivers and lakes. Cattails grow in wet areas in dense groups. You'll see the 2-10 foot tall sword-like leaves pointing up to the sky with a hearty stalk standing between them. Atop the stalk you'll see its signature long oval brown spike. Above the spike will appear a yellowish flower between May and July. In September or October, after the flower has been pollinated, you'll see the brown flower head pop open and get very fluffy. This means that the seeds are ripe and ready to float through the air in cottonball-like clumps of seeds ready to start new plants.

Cattails are very important for many animals. They provide a place for the red-winged blackbird to build a nest to hide their young, a place for fish to hide or nest under the water, and a food source for young ducklings and muskrats. Cattails also give us humans many products. Their starchy rhizomes (a horizontal root-like stem that sends out roots and leaves) are ripe for eating in fall and winter, all you have to do is peel and cook them like potatoes. The rhizomes can also be pounded into flour to make other foods. If you're looking for a tasty spring treat, try the young shoots raw or cooked. Immature flower spikes are great boiled and eaten like corn. The slender tall leaves aren't for eating, but they made excellent material for weaving baskets, floor mats, and home-building materials in days past. If you're ever in a bind for something warm or soft, use the soft-fluffy fruits to stuff a pillow, or insulate a sleeping bag or jacket.