Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Observing Cattails

Here in Roseburg we ended the year with the dubious news that 2013 was the driest on record; and January is doing no better.  One would think with all that dryness that Dale and I would be out and about virtually every day.  It may not be raining, but we have day after day of greyness and fog.  All is damp.   Since we’ve been cooped up I’m going to dip into my reserve of things I want to post about. 

Nearly a year and a half ago, on June 29, 2012,  I sketched a cattail head.  Last year’s head had broken open and was releasing fluffy seeds into the summer air.  New shoots were coming up, but no sign of new heads at this 2500 foot elevation.  Since we go to this little pond on a fairly regular basis, I decided I wanted to sketch the heads during their development.
July 20, 2012:  
Only three weeks later great progress had been made on the new heads.  If you look carefully on the middle strand of #1 you might be able to see the something is going on within the frond.  #2 is a little farther along; the frond breaks open revealing two parts.  The bottom part becomes the cattail head and the top part will carry pollen.  The protective sheath has loosened.  #3 shows the protective sheath breaking free and both the cattail head and the pollen swelling.  #4 finally shows the cattail head beginning to look like a skinny green head, the pollen taking on color, and the protective sheath withering up.  All these stages were visible on this date.

August 3, 2012: 
The cattail heads were plump, solid and had just touches of green still showing. When I walked amongst the cattail, the pollen swirled into the air at the slightest rustling.  I felt drenched in pollen dust.  The fronds still looked green and fresh.

Now my plans got thwarted.  When we headed up onto the Umpqua Forest towards the pond we found fresh, coarse, rough, lumpy, gravel had been just been put down to fill the potholes and smooth out the roads for heavy logging trucks.  We passed a pickup truck with a flat tire and worried about our own tires.  We made it home successfully but by morning we, too, had a flat tire.  Prudence was in order.  Wait until next summer and let the logging trucks wear down the rough edges on the gravel. 
Very quiet while I sit sketching.  I hear a very quiet trickle of water and the soft buzz of some insects.  A brief gust of breeze stirs the Douglas firs; they talk to me … and then a brief burst of chatter from a far off pileated woodpecker.  I even hear the tapping of my pen point as I stipple.

A song sparrow flies by, low amongst the feet of the cattails.  He is so close I hear the flutter of the sparrow’s wings.  A big fly zooms by, big enough to be a big, hairy tachinid.
Aug 17, 2013:  
2013 turned out to be a hotter and dryer summer.  My 2012 notes says the cattails heads were a warm rich brown without green on September 4, but they already looked that way on August 17 of 2013.  The water level around these cattails is constant so maybe the cattails stay green longer than others that end the summer on dry ground.  By Aug 17, 2013 the pollen was mostly scattered and dull looking, the heads a warm rich brown and the fronds had some yellowing. 
Warm, Indian summer sun shines through the strip of cattail in front of me.  Most fronds are warm gold; a few hang onto touches of summer green.  Only one nearby head has opened, releasing ethereal whiffs of fluff and seed into the barely stirring air.  Last week the cattails in the Klamath Basin were all golden brown and pouring forth with seed. (the Klamath Basin is eastern Oregon)

I hear two song sparrows scold me from somewhere within the depths of the cattail patch.  Autumn meadowhawks (small dragonflies) are attracted to the warmth of my shirt – noisy when they land.  Mostly quiet.  Lake in the Woods waits for winter.
My last painting was on Oct 29, 2013.  A little green still hung onto some of the fronds and most of the brown cattail heads were tight.  One head was erupting with thousands and thousands of tiny seeds.  I know some of these heads will release seeds this fall.  Once the rains come very little will happen until the heads dry out in the summer sun.   Then other heads will burst open.  I’ve been lucky enough to watch a hummingbird gather this fluff for her nest. 


  1. Hi Elva -

    These are great sketches of the lifecycle. Have you ever roasted and eaten a cattail head (is that an oxymoron?)? They're delicious at stage #2-3. I've also harvested cattail pollen, stage #4, to bake with, but my harvest was so full of minute insects that I thought better of it.

    Sometimes one can see fluffed but not dispersed cattail seedheads in late winter. Looking closely, the seeds are tied together by the silk from larvae of the cattail moth, Lymnaecia phragmitella. I wonder if hummingbirds glean the larvae as well as nest fluff?

  2. Hi, Elva, I love your posts and drawings!! Brilliant!
    Cheers, Sadami