Sunday, September 23, 2012

Broad-Leaf Cattail

Weather: Morning temperatures dropping into the forties; last rain 9/13/12; 12:06 hours of daylight today.

What’s blooming in the area: Hybrid perpetual roses, silver lace vine, datura, Heavenly Blue morning glory, African marigolds, zinnias.

Beyond the walls and fences: Leatherleaf globemallow, white and pink bindweeds, white sweet clover, goat’s head, yellow and white evening primroses, snakeweed, native sunflowers, áñil de muerto, Tahoka daisies, heath, purple and golden hairy asters.

In my yard, looking east: Maximilian sunflowers.

Looking south: Floribunda and miniature roses, crimson rambler morning glory, scarlet flax.

Looking west: Calamintha, leadplant.

Looking north: California and Shirley poppies, nasturtium, chocolate flower, blanket flower, black-eyed Susan, Mexican hat, chrysanthemum, yellow cosmos.

Bedding plants: Snapdragons.

What’s blooming inside: Zonal geraniums, aptenia, petunias.

Animal sightings: Small brown birds, geckos, bumble bees, other bees, hornets, harvester and small black ants.

Weekly update: If there’s water, so it goes, cattails will follow.

But, I’m still surprised to see them growing downstream from the Griego Bridge in Española. That’s not because this is the southwest. Typha latifolia grows everywhere from Alaska south on this continent. To the west, two species have evolved in drier areas: the narrow-leaved Typha angustifolia and southern Typha domingensis.

However, where I grew up in Michigan along the Kalamazoo River they did not grow everywhere. From the center of town upstream to the city limits the river flowed through what had been private land and then was a city park. The sides were lines with stone or concrete, the water flow maintained. Downstream there were factories that had polluted the water, so nothing grew.

It was possible to find the reeds if one drove along the county roads, but they only appeared in some places. At my summer camp, cattails did not grow around the lake, but only along the outlet. The plants prefer still waters; they disappear if they are disturbed too much.

In New Mexico in the early twentieth century, Elmer Wooton and Paul Standley reported they grew around Farmington and Shiprock on the San Juan in the northwest, and along the Rio Grande south from Albuquerque - not in this area. San Felipe once ground the shoots with corn meal and Isleta used the leaves in their thatched roofs, but up here, even though John Peabody Harrington found local Tewa speakers had three words for the plant - ‘awa, ‘awap’a and ‘awase - no one mentioned a use for it.

Cattails not only are not ubiquitous, they do not constantly reproduce themselves. The brown flower stalks contain both male and female flowers. While a great many will be fertilized, few will germinate. Instead, cattails expand from their underground rhizomes. Most patches are genetically homogeneous.

The seeds come back after volcanic eruptions and generally germinate better when they have been exposed to ashes. New plants appeared in the newly created soil after Mount Saint Helens blew in 1980. This is an early species in the evolution of flowering plants and survived by adapting to the changing environment with seed banks.

They were important to native Americans before there was corn. Frances Elmore found that among the Navajo the pollen had been used in many of their ceremonies, but was being replaced by corn. The Chiricahua, Mescalero and White Mountain Apache too were still using the pollen in the 1920's and 1930's in their ceremonies.

The use of the plant was deeply embedded into the lives of the Ramah Navajo. The reeds were coiled into round mats bound by narrow-leaved yucca and woven into square mats. Both were used as mattresses and hung in the hogans to protect them and their animals from rain and lightening.

More important, the square male mats were hung on the east side, and the round female ones on the west to bring rain. While the mats were being made, the weaver was not to cook, chop firewood or drink water. Some women even refused to make utilitarian baskets from the leaves for fear of lightening. When the mats were too worn for use, they were not burned, but set aside, because they were still medicine.

Similar uses survived among the Hopi, but in the ways such things do when their ritual significance has passed to another plant: the narrow-leaved species became the province of children who were given stalks to chew during the Kachina ceremonies performed to bring rain.

At my summer camp, we had a most superficial understanding of the native uses of the plant. We thought because we wrapped the ends of the tall, woody stems with something flammable to light our council fires, that the Potawatomi must have used them as torches. Instead, they used the silky hairs that form to disperse the seeds to line infant blankets, used the root to treat inflammations and sewed the leaves together to create waterproof linings for their wigwams.

Dan Moerman reports no one uses them for light.

Notes: Elmore, Francis H. Ethnobotany of the Navajo (1944).

Gucker, Corey L. “Typha latifolia,” 2008, in United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Fire Effects Information System, available on-line.

Moerman, Dan. Native American Ethnobotany, 1998, summarizes data from a number of ethnographies, including Edward F. Castetter, Uncultivated Native Plants Used as Sources of Food (1935); Castetter and M. E. Opler, The Ethnobiology of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache (1936), Volney H. Jones, The Ethnobotany of the Isleta Indians (1931); Albert B. Reagan, “Plants Used by the White Mountain Apache Indians of Arizona” (1929) and Huron H. Smith, Ethnobotany of the Forest Potawatomi Indians (1933).

Robbins, William Wilfred, John Peabody Harrington, and Barbara Friere-Marreco. Ethnobotany of the Tewa Indians, 1916.

Vestal, Paul A. The Ethnobotany of the Ramah Navaho (1952).

Wooton, Elmer O. and Paul C. Standley. Flora of New Mexico, 1915, reprinted by J. Cramer, 1972.

Photographs: All taken 15 August 2012.
1. Broad-leaved cattails south of Griego Bridge.

2. Broad-leaved cattails in irrigation ditch next to main road in Española.

3. Broad-leaf cattail.

4. Broad-leaf cattail patch, where previous year’s plants outnumber this year’s blooming stalks.

5. Broad-leaf cattail in seed with down used for linings.

6. Broad-life cattail patch with river behind the green grasses at the back.

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