Tag Archives: Conservation


A familiar sight, cattails edge ponds and wetlands and fill damp ditches across almost the entire U.S. and most of Canada. When I was a kid visiting my Michigan grandparents, I loved seeing the stalks rising like spears from the fringe of their small lake. Red-winged blackbirds often perched atop them, whistling and scolding. They’ve always held some romance for me, but there’s some cool ecological science behind them, too.

This cattail grows in a low, marshy place near my home in a storm water control area. A small pond with a variety of wildlife is a few hundred feet away from this.

Cattails grow tall on long, jointless stems, with the whole plant up to nine feet tall. The alternating leaves are slender. The distinctive brown club at the top of the stem is actually tightly set, tiny female flowers. Depending on species, the flower structure can be up to 12 inches long.

Their root structure is made up of rhizomes, which can interconnect densely in a colony of plants.

According to voyageurcountry.com,

… the flowers are very prolific, one stalk will produce an estimated 220,000 seeds. Even with this number of seeds, cattails colonize by sending up clones from the creeping rhizomes. It has been recorded that a cattail marsh can travel up to 17 feet in a year with prime conditions through the cloning process. Colonization can happen quickly, as one new seed produces a plant, that new shoot in it’s first year will send out a rhizomes for ten feet in all directions and can produce 100 clones in that first growing season.

Cattails are hardy as well as prolific. This handbook on waterfowl management says seeds remain viable in the seed bank for up to 100 years. Because it reproduces so successfully, it easily can crowd out other native species, reducing biodiversity. Controlling its spread requires active management, cutting and/or burning it out, or poisoning it through its root system.

This colony has been growing within the storm water control area for 3 or 4 years. After another couple of years, it could threaten to crowd out other species.

The good news is that fast propagation may be a bonus rather than a curse. There are TWO big benefits provided by cattail stands. One is water treatment: cattails are being used by communities for waste water treatment, among other remediation. And the other is in development of biofuels.

Water Treatment
Natural wetlands with cattails help control flooding, but they offer another important benefit, as well. Purification of waste water has been done in the U.S. at least since 1986. Now approximately 500 communities use plant colonies to treat sewage. They can also be used to treat livestock manure and other industrial wastewater. Cattail plants are able to remove toxins including mercury, nitrates, and pesticides, and they deal effectively with bacterial contaminants.

This interesting article by Dr. Isobel Heathcote provides some detail on how wetland sewage treatment works. She outlines advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages include positive aesthetics, habitat creation, and improved cost-efficiency in treatment. Disadvantages may include limited life expectancy of the created wetland, poor phosphorous removal, susceptibility to climate and disease, and the potential for a toxic-waste wetland remaining at the end of its life. Regardless, treating wastewater this way can be more effective than conventional treatments.

The cattail rhizome, the thick horizontal stems that grow just beneath the soil and help it spread so easily, is very starchy. With starch content between 40-60%, the rhizomes offer a potential source of ethanol that could produce more than 10 times per acre as compared to corn. Technologies for processing are still in development but show great promise.

Best yet, the biofuel and water treatment properties may be able to be combined. Blue Planet Green Living includes the following:

Blume suggests one of those “the-problem-is-the-solution” remedies in Alcohol Can Be a Gas. “’How about using the roads to provide the fuel for the cars that use them?” Water gathers around roadsides, allowing runoff filled with toxins like herbicides, oil and antifreeze to be carried for miles downstream. “If each county were to cultivate a 5-foot wide strip of cattail on each side of only 1000 miles of county-maintained roads, boom mowers could shred and harvest up to three crops of cattail per year, producing in theory up to 61 billion gallons of fuel (40% of the U.S gasoline consumption — without using a single acre of farmland while also thoroughly detoxifying road runoff water. Planting energy crops in the nation’s unused median strips along divided highways would generate additional billions of gallons.”

Food Source
Natural beauty combined with resilience, habitat for wildlife, biofuel combined with water remediation. What more could we ask of this common plant? Besides all that, cattails are a perfect survival food. All year long parts of the plant can be used. Cobs in spring, pollen in summer, roots in fall and winter, the only inedible part is the leaves. This page from Sacred Earth tells much more about using the cattail as food.

My childhood, romantic notions of cattails aside, there are many benefits to cattails. Still, I love to see them when we walk in our neighborhood. But knowing the rest adds to their attraction.


A County-University Biomass Project — Update

by Jim and Melanie

Last month we posted the story of a joint project between our beautiful county park, F.W. Kent Park, and the University of Iowa.

The park is in the process of restoring prairies to more of the landscape. On the northeast side of the park, a dense woods of planted conifer trees provided shade and shelter. They were not native, and as older trees, they were dying from age and disease. When we visited the park, expecting to see the old pines, we met with surprise. The entire pine woods was nowhere to be seen. The only traces remaining were some ground level cut stumps and small branch debris scattered about.

The trees were removed by the university, giving the county conservation board a head start on the restoration project on that side of the park. The trees were chipped and will be used as biomass to supplement the coal in the university’s power plant boilers. For several years, they have been using biomass from some local sources in that effort. This video, also in the older post, explains.

As reported by the Quad-City Times, the university has 3,000 tons of wood chips from the clearing to mix with coal. The supply should last through spring. While 3,000 tons sounds like a lot, the university needs approximately 100,000 tons of biomass to meet its 2020 sustainable energy goals.

From the article,

The university is experimenting with other forms of biomass, too. In June, it planted 16 acres of a perennial grass called miscanthus x giganteus. When the grass matures, a process expected to take three years, the university will try burning it for fuel, said Ben Anderson, UI’s power plant maintenance and engineering manager. The heat content from miscanthus is similar to oat hulls, he said.

The university plans to plant another small plot of miscanthus in 2014, and then plant another 1,000 acres in 2015, Milster said. It also is seeking potential growers to contract with, he said.

Miscanthus has ecological benefits, too: It improves soil quality and mitigates runoff, Milster said. The university does not intend to compete for land with corn and soybeans. Rather, it would grow the miscanthus on marginal land, [Ferman Milster] said.

The university continues to evaluate proposals for biomass from individuals and companies. After using oat hulls successfully for several years, other possibilities include corn stover, tree waste from landfills, and furniture production waste.

The university’s goal is to have 40 percent of energy use from renewable sources by 2020. Biomass replacement of coal is one of the most promising means to reach the goal. Solar and wind energy are important sources, as well.

Since the university is a major presence in our community, we’re heartened to know they are aggressively pursuing sustainable energy goals. It’s good for the university, the greater community, and our environment.

Bird Surface to Volume Ratios

How I See It

The activity around bird feeders is very high during the winter. The birds are more challenged to keep their energy levels and internal temperatures high enough to survive. We are also challenged and are refilling the feeders more often. Why are those little birds so busy? Today, I offer you a simple science lesson to explain why they eat you out of house and home when it gets cold.

The smallest birds are the most active feeders. Little ones such as Fox sparrow and Chickadee are non-stop feeders. The activity level is less for birds with larger volume such as this Turkey. The big ones are more casual about their eating habits. It is an inverse relationship.

The behavior is related to the ratio of the surface area of the bird to the volume of the bird. The bigger birds have more of their mass and volume guarded internally from…

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A County-University Biomass Project

by Jim and Melanie

We go walking several days a week. There are several routes we take from our house covering about two miles each. A few times a year we go to a park owned by the county which is a few miles from home. F. W. Kent Park is just over 1,000 acres with a lake, restored prairie, camping, education center, and hiking trails. The county board does a wonderful job of caring for the park. At this time of year, the restored prairies are in their glory with six and eight foot tall plants in full bloom. Recently, we headed for the park with a picnic lunch. After eating, we spoke with a naturalist in the education center and headed for the dense woods of pine trees in the northeast corner. We had been there last summer and really enjoyed the quiet, shade, and privacy they provided.

Heading down the trail past the pond and the low marsh land near it, things looked very familiar.

The trail turned and went uphill into a clearing as expected. To our surprise, the entire pine woods was nowhere to be seen. The only traces remaining were some ground level cut stumps and small branch debris scattered about.

Come along for the rest of this story.