Sometimes it’s difficult to tell one cat from another, especially if they’re plants, not animals.
In the spring, last year’s cattails look shabby and ragged. An aggressive native species, colonies of this spike-like plant are commonly found in ditches and freshwater wetlands. The soft down-like seeds are easily dispersed by the wind. Besides being employed by birds to line nests, the down was used by First Nation’s people as a firestarter and to line moccasins and papooses. Many parts of the plant are edible. (For more see the Wikipedia page for Typha at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Typha) New green cattails will appear later this summer and turn brown as the season progresses.
Cattails are often confushed with catkins, the male (and sometimes male/female) reproductive part on some trees and bushes. Below are catkins on an alder tree. The word ‘catkin’ is derived from the Dutch word for kitten. In late spring, these catkins certainly look like kittens’ tails.
In the next image, you can see the greenish catkins as they appeared earlier this spring, hard and closed. Also visible on the leafless branches are small brown cones leftover from last year. These cones hold many small seeds that are a favorite of chickadees.
Below are the pussywillows that are such a welcome sight in early spring. Their soft grey fur invites petting by young and old. As a child I recall my first grade class glueing these to an image of a kitten to provide texture and color. It was a common craft back then when most children had access to pussywillows near their homes.
Pussywillows are a type of catkin growing on willow trees or bushes. Eventually, they go to seed and appear quite different than when they first emerged from the branch.
By now, it’s difficult to find evidence of pussywillows in our woods. However, fresh green catkins can now be found on the yellow birch trees.
With such staggered and changing appearances, cattails, catkins and pussywillows can seem as mysterious as their feline namesake. Perhaps that’s part of their charm.
Text and images copyright Amy-Lynn Bell 2012