There are two species of cattails, the scientific names of which are typha angustifolia, narrow-leaved cattail, and typha latifolia, common cattail. Other names include reedmace and bulrush. They are perennial plants that have male and female flowers. The two species can be found growing together and cross-pollinating much of the time. The characteristic brown cylindrical brush is the female flower, and what gives this plant its common name. They grow in wet areas, along pond and stream banks, and in marshes and ditches, and get up to nine or 10 feet tall at full growth.
The cattail plant has underground roots in a rhizome-like structure that keep the plant sustained but dormant through the winter. The rhizomes of many plants growing near each other often intertwine to form a root colony. These will then produce shoots that come up in early spring, usually around the spring equinox. They resemble other early sprouts such as daffodil and iris. Cattail seeds require water and direct sunlight to germinate.
The cattail has a double flower, in which the top part, the male flower, pollinates the bottom, the female. Male cattail flowers produce pollen at about the summer solstice, or midsummer. You can tell when this is because the corncob-like male flower turns yellow with pollen. When the plants are pollinated, the male part of the flower dies and falls off.
In mid- to late summer, the female cattail flower blooms into a brown, velvety cigar shape, creating the “cattail” of the plant. These will go to seed in the fall, and as they do, become white and fuzzy. Once the seeding is done, and birds and winds spread the seeds, the stalk and flower of the cattail will go brown and die. These do not bloom again, but serve as the natural “compost” for new shoots from the rhizomes in the spring.