Around mid-July onwards, I spotted these cattails surrounding the pond in a nearby park. Cattails are cushy, fuzzy and spongy to hold. Be careful though, as you rub the cattail, hundreds of tiny spores are released into the air.
There’s an interesting story about cattails being supposedly the diseased skin of the white rabbit of Inaba. Below is an article by Kevin Short that tells us how to distinguish the different types of cattail species in Japan.
NATURE IN SHORT / Cattail flowers illustrate basic idea of biodiversity
Kevin Short / Daily Yomiuri Columnist
To help escape the natsubate summertime funk, I spend some of my free time around the water’s edge.
When in the city, I look for bridges over rivers or across ports, or shoreline and riverside cycling paths. Out here in the north Chiba Prefecture countryside, I can also cycle on paths that follow the edge of the Inbanuma marshlands and run for dozens of kilometers along the banks of the great Tonegawa river. Small ponds and marshes are also good waterside spots for cooling off. The vibes alongside a body of water seem to drive that ol’ natsubate back a micron or two. And while there, an ethnobotanist doesn’t dare pass up the opportunity to take a closer look at some common aquatic plants. By a closer look I mean sketching and photographing the plants, while studying up and asking around about their cultural contexts.
Two themes I’m working on this summer are cattails and lotus. These two are just perfect ethnobotanical subjects, with fascinating botanical aspects embedded in rich cultural lore. Cattail flowers, for example, bloom in long clusters known as spikes. These same cattails are also eaten by Native Americans, and the pollen is used to treat skin injuries in traditional East Asian herbal medicine.
Cattails are aquatic plants in the family Typhaceae and the genus Typha. The generic term cattail is North American in usage, while in Britain the same plants are usually called bulrush. In Japanese, the term gama can be a generic term for Typha, or the specific name for T. latifolia, the most common species here and clear across the northern hemisphere. In my home town in the Appalachian Highlands of northern New Jersey, we called cattails “punks.” My friends and I cut bunches of them, which we dried then burned at night as a natural mosquito coil.
Cattail flowers bloom at the tip of a stiff stem with thin very long, thin, cordlike leaves. The male and female flowers are in separate spikes, with the female cluster always below the male. After the flowers are pollinated, the female spike expands and turns deep brown as the seeds develop. The seeds are very light and tiny and come autumn and winter just float away on fluffs of down.
From bitter experience I can advise against keeping a near-mature cattail inside a room or car. I once committed this mistake in a university classroom. I opened a canvas bag to take out what I thought were solid cattails, and the next instance the room was filled with millions of the tiniest floating white seeds imaginable. The students panicked! This was a freshman lecture, but some students later insisted that there were still cattail seeds in the room during their senior year.
The male cattail flowers are also very tiny. Their sole job is to produce copious amounts of pollen to be tossed out on the wind. Once finished with this task the whole male spike begins to wilt away.
Cattails are also very good for introducing and illustrating some of the basic concepts of biodiversity.
Next year the 10th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity will be held in Japan. In preparation for this conference the Environment Ministry is implementing a campaign to make biodiversity a household word as familiar as global warming.
According to the convention, biodiversity is conceived of at three levels; ecosystem, species and gene. The most easily understood level for most people is species–the more species of plants and animals living in a particular region or habitat, the richer the biodiversity.
One of the watersides I regularly visit is a small, shallow, manmade marsh in a local park. This marsh is packed with cattails. From a distance the vegetation appears uniform, but standing at one spot at the edge of the marsh I can point out three different species of cattail growing side by side. As the genus Typha contains only about ten species worldwide, three is a respectable number.
The most common cattail is T. latifolia. At this time of year the female spikes already have developed into huge rich-brown Havana cigars.
Giving the T. latifolia a good fight for their money is T. australis, called himegama in Japanese. Hime means “princess” and in a plant name it usually indicates a form that is slimmer or slighter in build. Indeed, this cattail is noticeably thinner than T. latifolia. The most reliable way of telling these two apart, however, is to check to see if the male and female spikes touch each other (T. latifolia), or if there is a clear gap between them (T. australis).
The third species is the kogama, or “small cattail” (T. orientalis). Like T. latifolia, the male and female spikes of this species touch each other. At this time of year, the kogama is still blooming–its male spikes exuding pollen and its female spikes still soft and yellow. The female spikes of the gama, in contrast, have already substantially matured, and the male spikes have almost completely wilted off.
Later on, however, the female spikes of the kogama will also expand and turn brown. These will be substantially shorter than those of the gama, but a close look at the leaves–that of T. orientalis are only half as wide as that of T. latifolia–is always a sure method of distinguishing these two species.
Working hard just to get the basic cattail botany down, I have been taking pictures and making my typical field sketches. At the same time I have been researching the cultural connections, the most fascinating of which comes directly from classical Japanese mythology. In this episode the popular hero deity Okuninushi cures a white hare’s skin injuries with cattail pollen. This same substance can still be ordered from oriental medicine drugstores as hoo, to be applied directly to minor cuts, abrasions and burns. The pollen stops bleeding and relieves pain and itching.
Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.