Whenever you hear the word bulrush, do you think of cattails? Oddly enough, most people do. However, there are some differences between the two, although cohabitation is not unheard of. Cattails are known to invade a wetland much faster than bulrushes, taking over large expanses in a single growing season because of their mass quantities of wind-borne seeds. In growing season, cattails are more water dependent than bulrushes. Typically, the hardstem bulrush [Scirus acutus] is used in wetland projects and restoration. Bulrushes are much slower than cattails in establishing and spreading because they proliferate primarily through underground rhizomes rather than seeds. Bulrushes can handle and withstand long, dry periods better than cattails. There are some noted differences between cattail and bulrush, as emergent vegetation, but one noted commonality between them is their special adaptation in transporting oxygen from the air to their roots, enabling them to grow in continually flooded, but shallow water areas. Both cattail and bulrush establish quickly, (although as stated previously, bulrushes are still slower than cattails at establishing), and both can tolerate poor quality water. However, bulrushes tend to grow in deeper water, whereas cattails prefer shallow water.
Bulrushes are various wetland herbs (aquatic) from the genus Scirpus. They are annual or perennial plants that are medium to tall in height. Also known as tule, wool grass and rat grass, this herbaceous plant can grow up to 10 feet tall; they are found all through-out North America and Eurasia.
They are divided into groups of soft-stem [Scirpus validus] and hard-stem [Scirpus tabernaemontani] bulrushes, found in the Cyperaceae family. These two species are quite similar in their appearance and share commonalities regarding the areas they grow in. Bulrushes are often used in constructed wetlands to treat agricultural NPS pollution and for the creation and restoration of wetlands. One of the plants used for this kind of project is the species called the Giant Bulrush aka ‘Restorer’. It is considered a superior plant for this, particularly in the south-easterly states. Now you may be wondering, ‘What is NPS pollution and where does it come from?’ Good question!
NPS is short for ‘non-source pollution’, which comes from coal and metal mining, photography and textile industries, agricultural and urban areas, failed home septic tank drain fields as well as municipal wastewater, storm water, and other land disturbing activities that detrimentally impact 30 – 50% of the waterways of America. An affordable and efficient means to address and clean up diverse wastewater is with constructed wetlands. For almost 60 years, researchers have investigated and reported on the use of natural or constructed wetlands and their effectiveness and ability to cleanse polluted water. In 1989, one such researcher named Hammer, defined constructed wetlands for wastewater treatment as “a deigned and man-made complex of saturated substrates, emergent and submergent vegetation, animal life, and water that simulates natural wetlands for human use and benefits.”
The bulrush [Scirpus spp] is one species of vegetation that is cultivated in shallow beds or channels containing a root medium such as sand and/or gravel are effective in helping to regulate water flow. At the same time, biochemical reactions occur on the submerged portions of the plants and within the wetland soils. Oxygen is passively made available for biochemical reactions mainly by the diffusion of air into the system (Rogers et al, 1991). In the United States alone, over 56 FWS (Fish and Wildlife Service) systems process 95 million gallons a day of runoff and wastewater (Reed, 1991).
Bulrushes are reed-like and have long, firm leaves, olive-green, three-sided stems and drooping clusters of small, often brown spikelets found near the stem tips. The stem bases have a few inconspicuous leaves. The roots (or rhizomes) produce edible tubers. The tips of the bulrushes bloom with clumps of reddish-brown or straw-colored flowers that turn into hard seed-like fruits, during the period of April through August.
They are often found along the shorelines of marshy or swampy areas; such as wet locations like the edges of shallow lakes, ponds, swamps, fresh and brackish marshes, wet woods, slow moving streams and roadside ditches. They can grow as high as 10 feet in moist soils, and in shallow or deep water, respectively, from 1 -9 ft of water. The bulrush is densely rhizomatous with abundant seed production.
The Scirpus species occur almost always under natural conditions in wetlands. They are divided into groups of soft-stem [Scirpus validus] and hard-stem [Scirpus tabernaemontani] bulrushes, found in the Cyperaceae family. These two species are quite similar in their appearance. Soft-stem bulrush can grow to 10 feet and grows in dense colonies from rhizomes. Soft-stem bulrush has a round (in cross section), light gray-green, relatively soft stem that comes to a point with no obvious leaves (only sheaths at the base of the stems). Flowers usually occur just below the tip of the stem, from July through September. They grow in the places mentioned in the first paragraph, where soils are poorly-drained or continually saturated. As far as ecological importance goes, the soft-stem bulrush can triple its biomass in one growing season. One area that benefits from this bulrush are urban wetlands, where soft-stem bulrushes can be and have been used to reduce pollutant loads carried by storm water runoff.
The hard-stem bulrush (tule, black root) is a perennial herb with an obligate [restricted to a particular condition in life], robustly rhizomatous wetland plant that forms dense colonies. The stems of this bulrush are erect and slender, sharp to softly triangular; typically reaching 3-10 feet tall. Likewise, the leaves are slender blades that are sheathed around the long stem. The flowers are brown spikelets. The panicle can have 3 to numerous spikelets, which are oval to cylindrical. The nutlets are completely covered by whitish-brown scales and have 6 basal bristles. Bulrushes have stout rootstocks and long, thick, brown underground stems [rhizomes]. The hard-stem bulrush has a much higher tolerance of mixosaline [water containing saline] conditions, than the soft-stem bulrush. It regrows well after removal and is tolerant of fire.
Submerged portions of all aquatic plants provide habitats for many micro and macro invertebrates. These invertebrates in turn are used as food by fish and other wildlife species (e.g. amphibians, reptiles, ducks, etc.). After aquatic plants die, their decomposition by bacteria and fungi (called “detritus”), provides food for many aquatic invertebrates. Seeds of bulrushes are consumed by ducks and other birds while geese, muskrats, and nutria consume the rhizomes and early shoots. Muskrats and beavers like to use this emergent wetland vegetation for food, as well as for hut construction, thus improving the wetland habitat.
Bulrushes have been and are used by many cultures for medicinal purposes, as well as
In the provinces of Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Zhejiang, in China use the bulrush in teas, decoctions and extracts. The bulrush is believed to be effective and most commonly used to stop bleeding, whether from an injury or an internal disorder. It is also used to treat painful menstruation and postpartum abdominal pain. Evidence has shown that bulrush extracts can also reduce the amount of lipids in the blood, as well as being effective in treating colitis.
Native Americans would parch the edible rhizomes (seeds), which are high in protein and very starchy, grind them into a powder for flour, mixed it with water, boiled it and ate it as porridge. The young shoots are considered a delicacy, whether eaten in the raw form or cooked. The bulrush can be used for syrup and /or sugar, used in a salad or eaten as a cooked vegetable. The syrup is dried out to produce sugar and the pollen can be used to make breads and cakes.
They also made a poultice from the stems to stop bleeding and to treat snakebites. The roots can be processed and used in treating abscesses.
‘Boneset’ tea was a popular remedy used by Native Americans and pioneers alike to address general aches and malaise. It was said to have the most effective relief for the nineteenth and twentieth century flu epidemics. It remains popular as a herbal tea and is used as a tonic for colds, reduce sweating and to promote bone healing. It is the belief that it does indeed aid in bone healing that gave ‘boneset’ tea its name. Modern medical research confirms these benefits, stating that the compounds of ‘boneset tea’ stimulate the immune system.
Some Native Americans would chew the roots of the bulrush as a preventative to thirst. They also used the ashes from burned stalk to put on a baby’s bleeding naval.
Stems are used to weave strong sleeping mats, ropes, baskets, purses, hats, skirts, sandals, curtains, temporary shelters, canoes and rafts, brooms and other household items. The plant must grow in coarse-textured soil that is free of gravel, silt and clay if the roots are to be used for quality basket-weaving. The root was sought for the black color, which was desired to highlight patterns created in the making of a basket.
The benefits and uses of the bulrush, both ecologically, medicinally and creatively, make it worth careful consideration for wetland planting zones and native restoration landscapes.