California Tule and Common Tule

The illustration below is a set of drawings Bonnie did for Dr. David Keil’s and my plant taxonomy text plus a new one of the plants’ growth form. These species grow in areas where the soil is at least seasonally wet. These species require lots of fresh water but are capable of surviving periodic short exposures to salt water. They are commonly called tule or bull-rush. These tall (usually over 6 ft. or 2 m) more or less grass-like perennial plants resemble spears or pikes as they have no apparent leaves. (Leaves, except for short ones just below the flowers, are restricted to sheaths at the base of the stem.) Their flowers are borne in clusters just below their often sharp tips. There is a potential problem with the two common names given.

These names have been used for members of two different genera from two separate plant families — the sedge (Cyperaceae) and the rush (Juncaceae) families. A look at Bonnie’s drawings will show that the illustrated plant is clearly a sedge. How does one know? When I first took a plant taxonomy course, I learned a little rhyme which aided in identification of the three common “grass-like” families — the rushes, sedges and grasses (Poaceae). It goes, “Rushes are round, sedges have edges, and grass comes in joints.” “The grass comes in joints” part is a corruption of what the rhyme historically said. Since I was in college in the sixties and the corruption dates from then, I never learned the correct, that is, original wording. Maybe someone can help me out. Bonnie has shown a stem cross section. Note that it is triangular although the “edges” are rounded. Further, the flower clusters are sedge-like, produced in minute elongate clusters called spikelets. Each tiny flower is hidden behind a single bract. In these species the perianth (sepals and petals), is represented by dry, flat ribbons. Because “rush” is the name commonly used for members of the Juncaceae, I prefer the name tule over bull-rush.

There are two species of tule commonly found in our coastal wetlands. They are the common tule, S. acutus and the California tule, S. californicus. According to Robert Hoover, a third  species of tule (S. olneyi) with its very sharply triangular stems is “occasional in marshes near the coast and rare inland.” I’ve not actually identified this species so I know essentially nothing about it. The two common species are fairly easy to distinguish.

Tule, illustrated by Bonnie Walters

Tule, illustrated by Bonnie Walters

California tule has bright green stems that are bluntly triangular while common tule possesses a grey-green round stem. The illustration is of a California tule.


A word about the ‘S.’ or genus name in the two species binomials. According to Jan Timbrook (2007) in her book, Chumash Ethnobotany, the correct genus name, according the Flora of North America Project and presumably the new Jepson Manual when it is published, hopefully later this year, will be Schoenoplectus. However, none of the current floras use this name so Jan Timbrook decided to continue to use the long established name, Scirpus. Tules have two extensive chapters in Jan Timbrook’s book. She indicates the Chumash recognized two kinds of tule based on their cross sections — flat (actually not a tule but the cattail) and round, tule redondo. Some other tribes did acknowledge the difference between the triangular and round stem tule. As might be expected from two chapters devoted to one type of plant in an ethno-botany book, native people had many uses for the tule. Seeds, rhizomes, and young shoots were sometimes eaten although one source indicated that they felt gathering them for food (especially the seeds) was not worth the effort. The stems were bundled and the bundles overlapped to produce a thatching for Chumash dwellings. Bundles were also tied together in such a way to form a canoe-like water craft. Stems were also used extensively to form mats used in many ways. There are many other uses but I’ve not space to discuss them. However, I feel I have to mention one last use I did find intriguing. Poorer classes of women wove skirts out of tule because they couldn’t afford the animal skins used for clothing by the upper classes of Chumash. I guess I was naive enough to think sorting into economic classes was found only in modern economic and political systems.

by Dirk Walters, illustrations by Bonnie Walters | Dirk and Bonnie Walters are long-time CNPS-SLO members, contributors, and board/committee participants. In addition to his work at Cal Poly, Dirk is the current CNPS-SLO Historian.