Occasionally we are reminded that nature is dynamic and what appears to be natural really isn’t. I was reminded of that the other day when I visited a local cattail marsh.
It might surprise you, but an extensive survey of wetland vegetation in North Dakota conducted just before World War I found few wetlands dominated by cattails. Now of course, cattails dominate many of the marshes across the state. What is going on here?
The common cattail (Typha latifolia) is native to most of North America including North Dakota. The narrowleaf cattail (Typha angustifolia) was not documented in North Dakota until 1942. The native range of this species is not well known. It may have spread to our region from Canada, or perhaps was introduced from Europe. Whatever its origin, it can now be found over much of the state.
The two species are quite similar. As the name implies, the narrowleaf cattail has narrower leaves, smaller “cattails,” which are the female flowers, and there is a short space between the cattail and the male flowers above, which of course produce large amounts of yellow pollen.
These two cattails are so closely related that they hybridize. The hybrid (Typha X glauca) is abundant where both parents are present, which of course includes our region. Its characteristics are intermediate to the parent species, and even though it may not reproduce sexually, once one of these hybrids becomes established it may spread quickly by rhizomes and fragmentation. Hybrid cattail is more competitive than either of the parent species, and can be quite invasive under conditions of fluctuating water levels. Most of those thick, dense, stands of cattails we see in our region are pure stands of hybrid cattail.
Although these thick cattails may provide winter cover for pheasants and deer, they may actually be avoided by ducks, which need more interspersion of open water and vegetative cover. So there are some trade-offs when it comes to wildlife value.
The next time you see a marsh that supports a thick, dense, and extensive stand of cattails, there is a good chance it is the hybrid. It is a bold reminder of the changes that can occur with species and communities.
Natural North Dakota is supported by NDSU Central Grasslands Research Extension Center and Dakota College at Bottineau, and by the members of Prairie Public. Thanks to Sunny 101.9 in Bottineau for their recording services.
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