In Australia we call it Cumbungi, an Aboriginal word; the Maori word is Raupo; in Britain they call it Bulrush or Reed-mace; in America it is known as Cattail or even Catninetail, or Punk or Corn dog grass.
There are 15 species worldwide, and three in Australia, one of them introduced.
It can be very difficult to distinguish species, and there may be interbreeding. It is not a reed or a rush, or even a grass. It has its own family, the Typhaceae. It is a perennial monocotyledon that grows in mud or even water, an early wetland colonizer and regarded both as friend and enemy. It typically forms dense stands that deeply shade the water below. It can choke waterways, dominate or replace other native species, yet it can provide valuable habitat and it is a very interesting and useful plant. It is one of the most widely studied plants in Australia.
The Australian species are Narrowleaf Cumbungi T. domingensis and Broadleaf Cumbungi T. orientalis, native though not endemic, and Lesser Reed-mace T. latifolia. In Victoria, the latter occurs mostly east of Melbourne. T. orientalis is probably the species found at Jerringot, though there may be more than one species present and we need to check. T. latifolia does not grow as tall and its inflorescences are darker and smaller. In the field the species are distinguished mainly by leaf colour and width, the colour of the female spike and the distance between male and female inflorescences.
The leaves are strap-like, from 1-4 metres tall and mostly occur round the base of a simple, jointless stem that eventually bears the flowering parts. Leaves grow from their base, so the tip is the oldest part, and the oldest leaves are on the outside. Growth is rapidest in spring and maximum height is reached in early summer. Individual leaves live for a few months only. Once a plant flowers, its leaf production ceases.
Typha is monoecious (both male and female flowers on the one plant), sending up a tall spike, with the male flowers near the top and the female below, both encircling the stem with a brown velvety cylinder packed with tiny flowers. The male flowers produce the pollen and the female the receptive stigmas. Their work done, male flowers drop off; seeds develop in the female cylinder that eventually disintegrates into a soft fluffy sausage and then individual seeds, each with its own parachute, float off like the softest thistledown and drift away on the breeze. There can be 336,000 seeds in a single Broadleaf Typha inflorescence and 682,000 for Narrow-leaf Cumbungi, so it is no wonder dense typha colonies are formed. Seeds are tiny.
Seeds germinate rapidly under water or in wet muds even when oxygen levels are low, but need warm temperatures, preferably above 16˚ and light. Turbidity and salinity reduce germination.
Seeds are not the only way it can reproduce. It has tenacious rhizomes hidden in the soil, where buried seeds can lie dormant for long dry periods. Rhizomes are a bud source and the plants can regenerate after burning, cutting or grazing. It is also quite resistant to flooding; the leaves, stems and roots contain well-developed aerenchyma (air pathways, enabling exchange of gases between shoot and root) and even dead stalks can transmit oxygen to the rooting zone.
It comes from a very ancient family. Fossil Typhaceae seeds have been found in Eocene/Oligocene mudstones underlying shales near Rockhampton in Queensland. They belong to Typhaspernum cooksoniae. Typha plants have been used in a variety of ways for millennia. Traces of preserved typha starch grains have been found in Europe on grinding stones dating from 30 000 years ago. It is a rich source of starch.
Major Mitchell wrote that he saw aborigines carrying great quantities of the roots in nets on their heads and that ‘They take up the root of the bulrush in lengths of about eight or ten inches, peel off the outer rind, and lay it a little before the fire, then they twist and loosen the fibres, when a quantity of gluten, exactly resembling wheaten flour, may be shaken out, affording at all times a ready and wholesome food’. Mitchell had found a number of small balls of dry fibre near a native fire; they were the discarded typha fibres, which the aborigines had chewed to extract the sweetish white starch. Mitchell concluded that ‘The principal food of the inhabitants of the Kalaire or Lachlan, appeared to be ‘balyan’, the rhizoma, as already stated, of a monocotyledonous plant growing among the reeds, It contains so much gluten, that one of our party, Charles Webb, made in a short time, some excellent cakes of it and they seemed lighter and sweeter than those prepared from common flour.’
Mind you, Gerard Krefft did not think much of the roots (possibly the rhizomes), which the women waded in and collected, then ‘roasted in a hollow made in the ground, and either consumed hot or taken as a sort of provision upon hunting expeditions; they are at best a miserable apology for flour, and I almost believe it was on account of the tough fiber thus obtained that these roots were made an article of food’.
Alan and Joan Cribb who tried Typha shoots for themselves, wrote: ‘During spring and summer the new shoots, almost pure white, arise from the spongy underground stems. These can be cut while still growing horizontally or shortly after they have turned upwards. After boiling they make a pleasant vegetable, but only a small portion of the shoot is edible, a couple of inches behind the apex; fibres are too well developed to make eating worthwhile.’ This is the part of the plant known as Cossack asparagus, relished in many parts of the world.
It has also been reported that the female flowers in the bud stage can be eaten raw or cooked and dipped in butter, the hard core being discarded. The flowerhead is green at this stage, resembling a corn cob. The settler P. Beveridge recorded that aboriginals ate great quantities of the raw green young flowerstalks during spring.
It has been used medicinally. In Turkey, a decoction of the root was used as a remedy for dropsy and snake bite and in India the soft woolly male inflorescence has been applied like cotton on wounds and ulcers. If grown in polluted water, the rhizomes may accumulate lead or pesticides and should not be eaten, but the plants help to purify the water. It does not like saline water. It is not grazed much on account of its exceptionally fibrous leaves.
Aborigines did not eat the pollen, though it is harvested in New Zealand and India where it is baked into cakes, and some people in America today like to forage for the pollen and turn it into pancakes. It needs the addition of a little wheat flour for this purpose. It is said to be very nutritious, containing starch and protein. Typha pollen has been much studied; pollen analysis may be needed to separate species. It does not attract bees and may even be toxic to them. It is designed to be carried by the wind.
The pollen season is very short. A tap on the male ‘cylinder’ at this time can release a heavy yellow cloud. In Japan it is used as a pigment.
Pollination by wind can be very inefficient, so large quantities of pollen are produced. Pollen may not travel more than 100 metres and female flowers may be close and crowded. Wind pollinated plants need to have other means of reproduction and survival. Typha fits all these requirements.
The leaves can be woven into mats, the fibres can be turned into string for bags and nets. A very strong paper has been made from them, but it was not commercially viable, although it can still be obtained as an expensive decorative paper. The fibres resemble jute and can be used to produce textiles.
The soft thistledowny flowers were used to stuff moccasins and papoose carriers. Along the Murray River they were once collected and sold as stuffing for pillows. During World War II they were used to fill life vests and aviation jackets, that remained buoyant even after100 hours of submersion. They have also been used for roof insulation.
The seeds have a large oil content and are considered suitable as stock feed. Typha, with its high starch content and its high productivity, is also considered a potential biofuel. It is a significant contributor of organic matter to wetland systems, breaking down rapidly in the first year, but taking up to eight years to completely decompose. It can establish new stands from fragments of broken-off rhizome.
It has great habitat value. Crakes and rails hide among its leaf bases, Reed-warblers nest in it, swans and coots use its flattened leaves for their nests, others use the seed-down to line nests. Aquatic insects, frogs and small fish shelter among its roots.
So should Typha be cast as a villain? Perhaps the real villains are humans who, with irrigation channels and drains have created perfect habitats for typha to flourish in ways that do not suit us.
As far as Jerringot is concerned, we need a balance. We would like to see the ‘big hole’ restored, with the invasive typha drowned. We need plants such as typha to filter beds near water input drains, we need ‘reed beds’ as bird habitat, we do not want the water channels clogged so that they do not function efficiently and we do not want to interfere unnecessarily with natural regimes of wet and dry.
In early June at Jerringot the flower spikes had lost their male flowers, the cinnamon-coloured female flowerheads were becoming fluffy and the tiny parachutes were beginning to drift off. The male part was long gone, its pollen shed in single grains had dispersed around the crowded waiting female flowers. At Lake Elizabeth in the Otways, the plants were not so advanced.
This I know: I have never taken this plant seriously enough. It has always just been there, and I have not observed its various stages closely enough. I must watch for emerging shoots, check how far apart the male and female cylinders lie, see the female flowers in the green bud stage. Next autumn I must go to Jerringot when the male cylinders turn golden and release some of the ‘sun-dust’. My studies have just begun.
Cribb, A.B. & Cribb, J.W. (1976). Wild Food in Australia. Fontana, Brisbane.
Maiden, J.H. (1889). The Useful Native Plants of Australia (including Tasmania). Trubner and Co., London.
Mitchell, T.L. (1838). Three Expeditions into the Interior of Eastern Australia, 2nd ed. Project Gutenberg Australia.
Sedgelands and Rushlands. Cumbungi Typha orientalis and Typha domingensis in Roberts, J and Marston, F. (2011) Water regime for wetland and floodplain plants: a source book for the Murray-Darling Basin. National Water Commission, Canberra.