A Fuzzy Puzzlement

One curious cattail

I suspect most people are familiar with the broadleaf cattail (Typha latifolia), a common plant of marshes, swamps, wetlands, and ordinary ditches filled with standing water.

Cattail stalks contain two sets of tiny flowers. Male flowers, located at the top, disperse after they bloom, leaving the pollinated female flowers to ripen and turn brown beneath the expanse of empty stalk; as the seeds mature, they become the familiar ‘cattail’ beloved of children, birds, and home decorators.

As winter progresses, the smooth, brown seed head becomes ragged as birds pull at the fluff and weather begins to wear it apart. But on January 5, I noticed some catttails at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge that were more than a little out of the ordinary.

I counted at least a dozen stalks with the strange protrusions: some of the holes they surrounded were rectangular, some round. They didn’t seem random, and it seemed unlikely that birds had been at work. After some searching, I found that the larvae of the shy cosmet (Limnaecia phragmitella) will feed on flowers and developing seeds of Typha spp. The BugGuide page said: “Larval presence can often be detected by quantities of down protruding from the seedheads of cattails.”

Of course, “down protruding from seedheads” could mean any number of things, and the fact that these cattails were growing both some distance off the road and in water deeper than my boots kept me from examining them more closely.

When I sent photos to Thomas Adams, botanist for the Brazoria Refuge complex, he suggested they might be similar to galls that appear after a wasp lays its eggs in the cambium of an oak tree, but he’d never seen anything like them. Neither had a half-dozen other insect or wetland plant enthusiasts I contacted.

Today, I’m no closer to knowing what was going on in that marsh than I was on January 5. One of you may take a look and say, “Well, of course. They’re an example of (insert answer here), and they’re all over the place.”  If not? They’re still intriguing, and a reminder of the mysteries that fill the natural world.


Comments always are welcome.


52 thoughts on “A Fuzzy Puzzlement

  1. The kicker is that you could not get to them to examine them more closely. My theory is that something is sticking together the outside surface of the cattail, the seeds are trying to disperse but can’t get loose from whatever is sticking them together. As the poofy bit pulls loose and tries to fluff off, the outside bit where they are stuck together is rolled up, like a rolled hem.

    1. I didn’t think of a rolled hem, but I did see a resemblance to the kind of cuff that’s used in certain slippers and boots. I like the theory of the sticky surface, but that still leaves open the question of what’s dispersing the seeds in the first place. Neat and tidy isn’t the way it usually happens, and to see several stalks with such rectangular/round openings was just — odd.

  2. I find cattails fascinating and beautiful and I see many at the ditch. But I never have noticed any with these fascinating formations. They’re quite beautiful in their oddness!

    1. You should ask the people at Southern Exposure if they’ve ever seen anything like this. I initially thought it would make a fun project at one of their workshops, but when I sat down to try and duplicate the effect, all I got was a mess. However these were formed, it was done with more skill than I’m capable of.

  3. Beautiful photos, Linda. I’ve never seen this before, either. They are interesting! One year I had some sort of strange growth in my tree lilies, that turned the normally bell-shaped flowers into a chicken’s comb of sorts. There is some sort of virus that can do that, but the name of it escapes me right now.

    1. It sounds as though you might have had some fasciation affecting your lilies. Viruses have been proposed as one cause.

      This doesn’t look like fasciation, but I did wonder whether some sort of genetic abnormality might have been the cause. Given that cattails propagate through rhizomes as well as seed, it seems possible that an abnormality could be passed from one plant to another, but a localized occurence of some insect’s just as likely. What’s certain is that my just-barely-informed speculation is still speculation!

      1. Thank you for the link. It does look like fasciation is what happened here. The lilies were completely normal the following year.

        Those cattails are unusual. It will be interesting to see what they look like next year.

        1. I’ve gone through the whole list: chemical drift, insects, fasciation, and so on. I even considered fire as a possibility, since a very small and very localized prescribed burn was done on some balloon vine growing along the ditch behind the cattails. But scars from blowing embers would be far more random, and would have affected more than a dozen plants. It’s a mystery, for sure — but who doesn’t love a mystery?

  4. Linda, when we were first married, we were traveling in Michigan and I saw cattails in the ditch. “Oh, honey, can you pick some for me!” He did and we brought them home and had them in a vase in our spare bedroom. One morning, sometime later, when I looked into the bedroom, I discovered that the beautiful cattails had all “exploded” and all I could see was a room full of the cattail fuzz everywhere!!

    1. Who among us hasn’t had that experience with grasses or cattails? Long before I knew much at all about grasses, I brought an armful home and plunked them into a vase. Just like your cattails, those grasses were eager to spread their seed. I finally learned how to keep them under control: hairspray! I’ve got some little bluestem in a vase that’s in full bloom — and has been for six years.

      I sent these photos off to Jerry and Susan Hamby, and they’d never seen anything like them. I’m hoping that Pete and Peggy Romfh might have a clue. They’ve done so much photographing in Brazoria for the Cradle of Texas TMN chapter, they just might know the answer.

    1. I reserve ‘yucky’ for big millipedes and other squishy things, but I take your point. Who knows what’s living in there? I tend to suspect some sort of insect — it certainly isn’t a cattail just coming apart. The one thing we know for certain is that there is an explanation — we just don’t know what it is, yet.

    1. The good news is we can admire them even if we don’t have an explanation for what caused their strange appearance. Believe me — if I ever get a definitive answer for what’s going on here, you’ll know it!

  5. I seem to remember occasionally seeing cattail formations like these. In checking just now I found I’ve never posted a picture of one. Even if I had, I still wouldn’t have known the cause.

    1. I wondered about some sort of genetic cause, although I still favor insects. While I was roaming around looking for cattail oddities, I did find something else I’ve never seen: double-spiked cattails from New York. There’s just no predicting what these plants are going to get up to.

  6. Fascinating article. I have just gone through my own pictures of cattails and have nothing resembling yours. I don’t know what is going on but I will look forward to finding out. I am sure someone who reads your blog will know!

    1. I don’t have to have an explanation to enjoy such things, but it is great fun to try to find the explanation. There are times when even the most ordinary plant becomes extraordinary, and for me, this was one of those times. If I do find more information, I’ll certainly be sharing it.

  7. I’m afraid I can’t help you, Linda. I’d rather think of this as something natural (like a bug eating on the plant) than something disturbing though (like chemical marring). I guess if we can’t get a reasonable explanation, we can always call it climate change, right?!?

    1. After your experience with chemical drift in your neighborhood, Debbie, I’m not surprised you’d think of that. But these cattails were in the middle of a refuge, and a good distance away from any agriculture. If it were something like chemical contamination, or even a result of climate change, I’d think the effects would be more widespread, and at least someone would know about it. At this point, the number of people who’ve seen these unusual plants is pretty small!

      I agree that it’s probably a natural cause, and I still think insects are the answer. I did wonder if someone might have created those openings as a practical joke, but when I gave it a try myself, all I got was a pile of fluff in my lap. Whatever created these, they’re more skilled than I am.

    1. Those lines are even better when seen as the answer to the preceding question: “Are you alive, or not? Is there nothing in your head?” I’d say there’s something in the cattails’ heads, and it may very well be elegant and intelligent!

    1. In every sense of the word: “I wonder what that is?”, “I wonder where that road goes?”, and of course, “That’s wonder-full.” There are other wonderings, of course. In this instance, while I pondered whether I could get out to the cattails to examine them more closely, I wondered if there might be an alligator lurking around. I decided to keep wondering.

    1. At this point it’s as good a guess as any, perhaps better than some, and certainly a great deal more fun. This isn’t the only little cattail oddity, though. Look at these double spikes from New York. Keep your eyes open the next time you’re in a summer marsh up there!

    1. I saw some photos of the larvae, but I missed the illustration you found. It’s really quite delightful. I’m uncertain whether it shows the same phenomenon; I wish the artist had shown the bottom portion a little more clearly.

      What strikes me about the ones I found is that the entire head clearly isn’t in the process of disintegrating. it seems as though whatever went to work on it did so when it wasn’t fully ripe, allowing the openings to maintain their shape. It would be great fun to have a definitive answer to the question of what produced such creative fluffing.

  8. What a strange rather alien-looking growth. Whatever they are, thanks for sharing. There are many of these plants around, and in, my local pond. You’ve got me curious now, so I’ll go down and check out if any of ours have those curious circular fluffy appendages.

    1. I didn’t realize how widely spread cattails are. I found studies about them from Sweden, the Ukraine, Japan, and Switzerland — now I can add Australia to the list of places they grow. Wouldn’t it be fun if you found some with the same characteristics? Stranger things have happened.

    1. I suspect that as attentive as you are to things, you would have noticed if there were oddities in the cattail patch. It’s funny how that happens with so many things. We always notice the break in the pattern, or a break in a routine. More often than not, it’s the irregularities that are interesting.

  9. An intriguing puzzle. While googling cattails I learned that Native American tribes used cattail down to line moccasins. This information didn’t surprise me because when I first saw your photos I thought immediately of a type of sheepskin slipper which is very popular in our house. https://www.miwoollies.com/alex/ Now, I am wondering if some little creature was keeping its feet warm in the cattails.

    1. Those slippers were the first thing that came to my mind, too. I gave a similar pair to both my mother and my aunt for Christmas one year, and they never stopped praising them.

      I read yesterday about the fluff being used for moccasin lining and the lining of cradleboards, so a cattail being used for shelter seems perfectly reasonable. It’s only temporary housing, though. When I saw the stand of cattails again a couple of weeks later, nothing remained; the heads had disintegrated and flown away.

    1. I’d love for you to find some with the same “whatever it is.” What I can’t quite get over is that those cattails are gone, now. The bare stalks are still there, but nothing more. If I hadn’t happened by and seen them, and photographed them, they would have come and gone without anyone knowing they were there. Just think how many other things are happening all around us that we don’t know about!

      1. I think about that a lot. It’s a good reason to have several favorite hiking trails that are close and where you can visit often throughout the year. So much changes and so quickly.

    1. It certainly was nice. I was especially pleased that Bill liked it, and said he hoped I’d consider doing more writing for the website in the future. Of course I will; I’m already toying with two or three possible topics. I do have a way in mind to incorporate the Winkler’s Gaillardia and the article into a blog post, so I can share that little beauty with readers here, too.

  10. I know I’ve seen some odd cattails – I think it may have been something like this – at some point. I can’t remember if the shapes were donut-like or just strange, but it was clear that it wasn’t just the birds fault. Thanks for tracking that down, at least as far as you did, and your comment just above is interesting too – the disappearance. Yes, there’s a lot we don’t know!

    1. When I was doing an image search, I came across these double-spiked cattails from New York. Don’t they look like link sausage?

      If I ever do identify these bits of puffiness, I suspect it’s going to be one of those serendipitous discoveries. I’ll be trying to identify an insect, and I’ll find a photo of one sitting on a similarly affected cattail, and the photographer will add in an aside, “Oh, by the way — do note the [whatever] that occasionally appears on the plant.” It could be a decade from now, but I’ll still remember these.

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