Plant of the Week: Graceful Cattail

By Andi Pettis | July 14, 2014

The High Line’s planting design is inspired by the self-seeded landscape that grew up between rail tracks after the trains stopped running in the 1980s. Today, the High Line includes more than 300 species of perennials, grasses, shrubs, and trees – each chosen for their hardiness, adaptability, diversity, and seasonal variation in color and texture. Some of the species that originally grew on the High Line’s rail bed are reflected in the park landscape today.

This week we share one of our gardeners’ current favorites with you.

Swaying over the children splashing in the water feature, across from the visitors reveling in the sun on the deck chairs, the graceful cattails are blooming on the High Line. A marginal wetland species native to Europe and Asia, Typha laxmannii is monoecious, meaning both male and female reproductive parts are present on each individual plant. There are actually two sets of tiny, densely packed flowers on each stem. The yellow-brown flowers near the top of the stem are the male flowers, one or two inches below these are the yellow-green female flowers. Once the pollen has fallen from the male flowers onto the female flowers, the male flowers shrivel and fall away from the stem. The female flowers are left to mature into the familiar fuzzy brown cattails, which are actually the seed-bearing fruits of the plant.

Typha laxmannii is known as the graceful cattail for its small stature and fine texture. Other species of cattail can grow up to 10 feet tall – very impressive for plants growing at the edge of a majestic lake, but rather unwieldy for the High Line’s small wetland planting or an urban garden. Typha laxmannii grows only to three feet, making it a graceful choice indeed for backyard ponds or rain gardens. These cattails will thrive in any sunny spot where the soil is regularly saturated and never quite dries out – perfect for the poorly drained areas that are usually a problem spot in gardens.

Cattails are a ubiquitous wetland plant, to put it nicely. They are one of nature’s most successful plant species. They are able to survive submerged in water because of the highly developed air channels in the leaves and stems, called aerenchyma, which deliver oxygen to the root systems. Cattails are also expert propagators, reproducing sexually by wind-blown seed, but they spread most vigorously by rhizomatous root systems. While cattails certainly play a role in healthy wetlands ecosystems, they can quickly take over when systems are disturbed or soils are enriched with nutrients from agricultural runoff.

Monocultures of cattail, even our native cattails such as Typha latifolia and Typha angustifolia, are common across the country, and often populations must be managed through conservation and restoration initiatives. Don’t worry, on the High Line, Typha laxmannii‘s colonizing roots are contained in raised metal planters, 30 feet above the city and well away from the shoreline.


The graceful cattails, Typha laxmannii, can be found growing next to the water feature between 14th and 15th Streets on the High Line.

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