Plants That Look Like Cattails
Cattails, or cat-tail plants, are not the best option for every garden, so finding plants that share a similar look with different growing requirements might just be the ticket.
Sometimes called bulrushes, common cattails (Typha latifolia) are fast-growing aquatic plants that grow best in USDA plant hardiness zones 3a to 10b. They need very wet conditions to grow well and are somewhat invasive, so they might not be the best option for every garden.
Plants that look like cattails are not exactly common, although there are some plants that share similar traits but with different growing requirements that allow them to grow in different climates and under different growing conditions.
About Cattail Plants
Cattails are one of 51 semiaquatic wetland plant species that belong to the family Typhaceae. All cattails are perennial plants that grow and spread via rhizomes, which colonize wetland areas and produce large strands of grassy foliage.
In spring, cattail plants produce fuzzy, cigar-shaped flower heads that add texture to water gardens and flower arrangements. The flower heads eventually turn to fluff, which can create a mess as the plant ages.
Only a few species of cattails are grown as pond plants, including the common or broadleaf cattail and the narrow-leaf cattail (Typha angustifolia), which grows in USDA plant hardiness zones 2a to 11b.
Cattails are rhizomatous plants that can spread aggressively when grown in or near shallow water, so be sure to grow them with a root barrier in place to control their invasive tendencies.
Plants That Look Like Cattails
While no plants look identical to cattails, some share their grassy appearance or offer large flower or seed structures that will add beauty to the landscape without being invasive.
Most cattail alternatives are hardy plants, but some are tender and are better suited to warmer climates where frost is rare.
Rushes and Sedges
Rushes and sedges can be used as cattail alternatives in marshy areas of the garden. One adaptable and showy sedge is Cherokee sedge (Carex cherokeensis), which grows best in USDA plant hardiness zones 6a to 9b. Its grassy appearance and elongated brown flower heads give it a similar appearance to cattails, but its rhizomes spread slowly, so it is easier to control than cattails.
The attractive, easygoing green bulrush (Scirpus atrovirens) is another alternative to cattails for freshwater ponds and gardens. It grows best in USDA zones 3 to 9, where it needs full sun or partial shade. Green bulrushes reach a mature height of 4 to 5 feet and produce attractive flower and seed heads in early summer.
Wild irises (Iris spp.) produce grass-like foliage that adds height to landscaping around ponds and water gardens. Although they lack the fuzzy flower stalks, wild irises do produce showy flowers during their summer bloom time.
Yellow irises (Iris pseudacorus) grow well under the same conditions as common cattails and will tolerate up to 10 inches of water over their roots. These showy flowering plants perform best in USDA plant hardiness zones 5a to 9b, so they are not as cold hardy as cattails, though they grow well in flooded soil with full-sun exposure. Yellow irises reach a mature height of 3 to 4 feet with a 1- to 3-foot spread.
The northern blue flag (Iris versicolor) is another flowering plant option to replace cattail plants in a water garden in USDA plant hardiness zones 3a to 9b. Sometimes called harlequin blue-flags, these showy water plants are native to North America and will tolerate moist soil to occasional flooding with no trouble. The foliage reaches a mature height of 2 to 2 1/2 feet, so they are not as tall as cattails.
Some ornamental grasses closely resemble cattails, although most prefer dry soil that drains well. Grow these plants in pots if you plan on growing them near water.
Purple Majesty ornamental millet (Pennisetum glaucum ‘Purple Majesty’) looks like purple cattails. The plants produce thick maroon seed heads in summer that closely resemble the flowering stalks of cattails, and they produce purple rather than green foliage. This 3- to 5-foot-tall grass variety grows best in USDA plant hardiness zones 2 to 11, where it needs full sun and dry, fast-draining soil to thrive.
Black fountain grass (Pennisetum alopecuroides ‘Moudry’) is another option if you are looking for a cattail-like ornamental grass that is suited to drier conditions. This fountain grass variety is hardy to USDA zone 6, where it will self-sow under the right conditions. Black fountain grass reaches a mature height of 2 to 3 feet with brushy seed heads that are somewhat similar to cattail flowers but with an airier look.
- North Carolina State University Extension: Typha latifolia
- Iowa State University Extension: Something Other Than Cattails in Wetland Gardens
- North Carolina State University Extension: Iris pseudacorus
- North Carolina State University Extension: Iris versicolor
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Scirpus atrovirens
- Missouri Botanical Garden: Pennisetum glaucum 'Purple Majesty'
- North Carolina State University Extension: Carex cherokeensis
- North Carolina State University Extension: Typha angustifolia
- University of Wisconsin-Madison Extension: Fountain Grass, Pennisetum alopecuroides
Sasha Degnan holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature and Anthropology. Her written work has appeared in both online and print publications. She is a certified Master Gardener and dedicated plant enthusiast with decades of experience growing and propagating native and exotic plant varieties.