Managing wetland habitat inevitably involves controlling cattails. Recovering a wetland from a well-established cattail colony is a 5-to-10-year project that requires persistence and multiple herbicide application methods. In colonies with a high density of cats, a two person or ATV mounted boom is a good way to cover a large area relatively quickly. With low concern for non-target damage (there is usually little else in dense cattail stands) an herbicide-soaked boom can be dragged over the cattails; literally painting the plants with herbicide. This method can reduce stem density of a cattail colony by 50% or more in two treatment seasons.
As the treatment area recovers, or when managing cats in high quality wetlands, a finer approach is needed to avoid non-target damage. Hand-wicking (aka the Glove of Death) is a popular method to address low density cats. A thick cotton glove wetted with herbicide is worn over a nitrile glove. Individual cattails are then treated by grabbing and pulling them through the glove. When using this method, I use 5% wetland safe glyphosate. There is virtually no non-target damage when treating cattails this way. However, it is not very versatile, and it’s messy. You will get herbicide on your hands, arms, face, and neck despite efforts to minimize exposure.
In most situations, my preferred method for dealing with lower density cattails is to spray the base of the plants with 3-5% glyphosate. Using a sprayer to target individual plants gives you more flexibility in the field. Isolated plants can be targeted with precision and clumps of cattails can be quickly dispatched with a foliar spray (directly to the leaves) if appropriate. This method also has a lower risk of direct contact exposure to herbicide than hand wicking. A one-gallon hand sprayer or a backpack sprayer is appropriate for this method (I’m quite tall and prefer the reach of the backpack sprayer). Apply just a milliliter or two of herbicide to the region of the cattail stem from which the leaves fan out.
Photo 1: Applying a small amount of herbicide to the base of cattail leaves.
I often use my free hand to pull on a few leaves and open the base of the plant. Done this way, herbicide will funnel down into the stem. There is minimal overspray if done carefully and with low pressure. After treatment, fold over the top 6-10 inches of the leaves to mark the plant as treated.
Photo 2 Fold and crease the leaves over to clearly mark the plant as “treated”. This is very helpful when working with a crew; it’s also nice to turn around and see your progress.
As with any established invasive species, eradication is usually not possible. Cattails quickly take advantage of disturbance and changes in hydrology. Exposed muck and soil in wetland restorations is an open door for cats. Quality, remnant wetlands require annual vigilance to prevent cattails from setting up shop. Cattail work is time-consuming and done at the hottest time of year here in the Midwest. Despite that, it is satisfying to see to see the contrast of yellowing cats against the green of other wetland plants. Also, because of their stature and dominant presence, any reductions in cattail density are easily appreciated from year to year. Applying herbicide in a precise, efficient, and tidy manner leaves a smaller management footprint in a wetland and avoids creating an “invasive treadmill.” If you’re looking for a quicker, less messy alternative to hand wicking, give sprayers a chance.