Presenting: Awbury’s 2019 article series on natural fibersClick here to learn more about this year’s theme.

Articles written by La Salle graduate and Awbury intern Dan Sardaro.

August 2019 –  CATTAIL: 

Cattail looks a bit like a hotdog stuck on top of a green stalk

I’m sure many of you know what a cattail looks like. It appears almost as if a hotdog was stuck on top of a green stalk. You have to admit, they look pretty odd. Even the many names for the plant are abstract – from cat-o-nine-tails, reedmace, bulrush, water torch, candlewick, punk, and corn dog grass. But did you know that these weird looking plants that dwell in ponds and wetlands actually have a hidden secret? Yes, you may have guessed it by now. They are capable of producing their own natural fiber.

The cattail could be considered a miracle plant. Its uses range from cleaning wastewater at sewage treatment plants, detoxifying soils, acting as raw material for handcrafted wickerwork, providing nutritional and medicinal value, and even acting as a healing plant for some illnesses. They were used extensively by the Native Americans for items like baskets, mats, and baby diapers. Needless to say, cattails are a versatile plant, and they are serving new purposes today.

Cattail fiber is mold-resistant, permeable, and very hardy

Construction is one of the fields which may soon benefit from the renewable raw material. Cattails are nature’s swamp plants; therefore they have inherent properties that make them especially conducive for the creation of construction materials, such as the insulation outer walls or the reinforcement of plaster. The first property cattails possess is their leaves which are made up of a fiber-reinforced supporting tissue that is filled up with sponge tissue. This structure allows a cattail-based material to be mold-resistant, permeable, and excellent when dealing with moisture. Another key element of the material is its hardiness. After testing such a material in houses in Germany, researchers were happy to find that cattail paneling withstood the elements and complimented the other functional materials of the home. While these fibers have not been widely used and have not been applied on an industrial scale, there is hope that the cattail, a prolific plant, can add to the growing list of sustainable building resources.