Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 145   March 6, 1948
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
William N. Erickson, President
Roberts Mann, Supt. of Conservation

One of the first signs of spring, as the snow and ice melt away, is the appearance of new green spears of cat-tail leaves pushing up through the mud and water along the shores of lakes and ponds, and in the shallows of swamps and marshes. Frequently, shallow waters are completely choked with cat-tails which, by summer, grow to be tall graceful plants providing favorite nesting places for red-winged blackbirds and for bitterns, coots and other shore birds. The cat-tail is also a prefer red food and house-building material for mushrats, who cut and pile great heaps of them with other aquatic plants and mud, into lodges where they spend the winter, or to which they go by underwater channels to feed.

Each cat-tail plant has a rod-like blossom-stalk, 4 to 8 feet tall, rising from a clump of fine fibrous roots bedded in the mud. This stalk is enclosed and supported by the lower portions of the tall narrow tapering leaves -- their upper portions flat, flexible, and curving gracefully. The stalk is topped by a cylindrical head about a foot long. In June and early July, the lower half of this head which contains thousands of female flowers, is about an inch in diameter and looks like green velvet. The upper half, more slender and covered with olive-green fuzz, contains the pollen-bearing male flowers. By September, the lower half is a deep brown plush-like cylinder packed with thousands of seeds which later separate from the head and are blown away, each borne by its fluffy parachute.

For ages, artists and decorators have used the cat-tail as a model for their designs. The central part of the root and lower stalk, which is mainly starch, was dried and ground into meal by several tribes of Indians and by the early white settlers. The white tender lower parts of the stem and leaves may be eaten in salads. The cat-tail leaves are used for weaving, for caulking seams in boats, and for caulking between the staves of barrels. The stalk heads, or "cat tails", are edible if roasted when young; when mature and dry they can be dipped in oil and used for torches; during the last war they were processed to substitute for Kapok in life preservers and mattresses.

Manx cats have no tails.

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