July 13, 2020

Cattails and Romance: A Farmer’s Tale


Janine Pineo Photo | Cattails

• By John F. Chisholm •

Cattails are the bane of my mowing experience.  Wet, boggy areas from six inches above water level to two feet below are their domain. They take over our drainage ditches and the edges of our ponds.  Heavy, fibrous and prolific, they’re the dandelions of the aquatic world.  Mow them all you like, cut them down at every opportunity and it makes no difference.  They come right back at you.

For years I gathered the fertile stalks from the plants before mowing the remainder, collecting the ovaries in old feed bags.  Then I burned them in the first brush pile of winter laughing with unholy glee as the seeds exploded in flames.

This year living got in the way.  I’m not sorry.  We’ll see if it makes any difference in terms of proliferation.  I have serious doubts that any of my earlier efforts were of the least avail.  Some species are simply too determined to be weeded out.

It happened like  this:

My wife and I were taking our morning walk.  I pointed out a drainage ditch.  “I still have to find the time to mow that.”  Cattail stalks and leaves bobbed in the cold wind.  Every fall the plant turns pale yellow and then gray, becoming brittle as the frost kills the tops.  (Don’t waste any concern, the roots will still be there next spring, healthy and raring to grow.)

“Why do you hate them so?” Wendy asked as we walked over for a closer look.  Monday’s rain soaked the ground, swelling all the rills, drainage ditches and streams on our farm.  We were both wearing our rubber boots.

“Oh, they take over, if you let them.  They clog the ditches, keeping our fields wetter, longer.  Then the muskrats move in, digging their tunnels, making their nests from the leaves.  The next thing you know, the ditches that started out 5 feet wide are 10 feet wide and still growing.”

“What are these?” she asked, pointing to the dark brown, bulbous ovaries atop each fertile stalk.

“They’re millions upon millions of seeds.”  I grabbed one.  It uprooted easily.

Then I showed my wife.

“How’s it work?” she asked.

I’ll never know what came over me.  Perhaps it was the frustration of continually losing ground to cattails despite my best efforts over years of trying.  Maybe the chilly wind still carried a bit of Halloween madness in its bite.  Who knows?  “It works like this,” I explained, winding up and whacking my wife’s arm with the stalk.

What can I say?  It was ripe.  Conditions were perfect.  My wife disappeared in an explosion of cattail fluff.  The wind took over, howling in malicious glee as it spiraled the seeds in a choking cloud around us both.

Wendy sputtered, yelling in outrage, “I’ll fix you!”  She grabbed another stalk ― it’s not as though there was a shortage ― and gave me a vengeful thwack in return.  The second explosion was worse than the first.  Thus began the carnage of the Great Cattail Fight.  We uprooted every stalk available and thwacked each other with abandon and hilarity, both striving for the upwind advantage.
We did more to propagate cattails in 15 minutes of complete foolishness than I’ve been able to curtail in 20 years of effort.

As I say, I’m not sorry.

That’s because when we finally stopped, the drainage ditch a trampled tangle of bent and twisted cattail remains, I had to admit something:  I’ve finally found a use for cattails.  I’ve never seen my wife prettier than, complexion rosy with health, vigor and exercise, she looked up at me with cattail seeds clinging to her hat, coat and hair.  We were both exhausted from laughter.  I kissed her then, exchanging cattail fluff on our lips.

It tasted marvelous.