The Ethnobotany and Economics
of Phragmites sp. (especially P. australis)
 
     Ethnobotanical sources reveal that Phragmites species, including Phragmites australis, have served as food, sweetening, decoration, weapons, weaving material for various purposes, and for making musical instruments.
In Asia:
In Asia, shoots of Phragmites sp.were used as food (Baranov 1967) and culm (flowering stem) sections are worn by Assamese women in their ears and short sections are dyed violet and yellow and strung as beads (Francis 1984). In the Philippines, leaves of Phragmites karka, a closely related species, are used for pond-field fertilizer (Bodner and Gereau 1988). In India, that species is used for making winnowing sieves and as a symbol in religious ceremonies (Jain 1991).Other uses include stems as whistles during periods of mourning and by children as toys.
 In Australia:
    Information posted along the Aboriginal Trail of the Australian Botanic Gardens states that the stems of Phragmites australis were highly prized for spears, and were also cut into short pieces for necklaces or nose ornaments (Australian National Botanic Gardens 1998a). The leaves were used for making bags and baskets and the stems bound together for making large rectangular rafts used for mussel-collecting on inland lakes. Tasmanians ate the shoots of the underground stems (rhizomes) (Australian National Botanic Gardens 1998b).
 In the Middle East:
    In modern times, the plant has been used by the Bedouins of the Sinai and Negev Desert for mats, baskets, and flutes (Bailey and Danin 1981). The Ma'dan tribe in southern Iraq uses Phragmites growing in the vast marshlands at the head of the Persian Gulf in the construction of family huts and other buildings (Thesiger 1958 in Cruz 1978).
 In Africa:
    In East Africa, the mature stems of Phragmites mauritanius served for filling in fences and screens around homesteads, and for interior partitions (Weiss 1979).This plant is on Morgan's (1981) ethnobotanical list for the people of Kenya, but no use is given. Cunningham and Milton (1987) note P. australis' presence in northwest Botswana and suggest it be used for basket-weaving instead of the Mokola palm since it is abundant and resilient to harvesting. Muthuri and Kinyamario (1989), discussing the nutritive value of papyrus, mention that P. australis has a high nitrogen content in its crude protein that decreases as the plant matures. Since young shoots of Phragmites were eaten in Manchuria (Baranov 1967), perhaps there was nutritive value in them as well as their being something to ease hunger.
 In Europe:
    In Great Britain, the common reed is an important economic plant. It has even figured in heraldry and is featured on the crest of Middlemore, and described by Kenk (1963) as "a moor cock amidst grass and reeds proper; Sykes' shield: gules, three tufts of reeds vert." Many of the picturesque and familiar traditional thatched roofs of England are made of common reed (Norfolk Reed Growers' Association 1972) and a well-constructed roof of good "Norfolk reed" has a life expectancy of 60 to 70 years and is impenetrable to insects, birds, and vermin (McGhee 1998). Phragmites has also been used to make pen points for calligraphy and, in at least one expert calligrapher's opinion, the quill made fro the plant was the "best available" (Brown 1979, p. 134). Phragmites is used for Swedish bagpipes (Gallmo 1998), horticultural peat (Cornell 1998), and pulp for paper-making in Italy and Romania (Isenberg 1956; Rudescu 1976; Cruz 1978) and in other regions such as Russia (Brown 1979). Sustainable reed harvesting is a concern in Europe today (Veber 1978; Nevel 1996).
 In South America:
    Modern Peruvians have used Phragmites to construct the now-disappearing reed boats which were used along the coast and for mats and baskets (Heiser 1979). There appears to be some interest in the presence in the rhizomes of Phragmites australis of N,N-dimethyltryptamine, a chemical which is a constituent of some South American snuffs and drinks (Wassel 1985Pennanin 1995).
 In Mexico:
    In modern times, several uses of the plant have been recorded in Mexico. In Oaxaca, the stem and leaves of Phragmites australis have been used in midwifery for postpartum recovery (Browner 1985). The Tarahumara make sleeping and sitting mats from the shoots of young Phragmites (Ebeling 1986). The Seri used it for reed boats, harpoons, arrow shafts, cactus fruit-gathering poles and house construction (Ebeling 1986).
 In theAmerican West:
    Various Western Native American groups used the reed as a fiber plant, the hollow stems for pipestems and arrow shafts, the whole plant as an emetic (vomit-inducing) decoction, and for basketry materials. (Ebeling 1986; Johnston 1970; Turner and Bell 1971; Laforet 1990; Tanner 1990). Several groups of Western Native Americans also used the stems for arrows and collected insect honeydew from the stems to eat like sugar (Ebeling 1986; Timbrook 1990) and as a source of salt and smoking tobacco (Ebeling 1986). Common reed was also used for thatching Native American houses and in the construction of items such as clothing, very strong nets, snares, sleeping mats, wooden frames for drying berries, and sandals (Cain 1967; Mathias 1978; Ebeling 1986; Prindle 1996). Moerman (1998) has listed several medicinal uses by Western Native Americans, including in treatment of diarrhea and related ailments, as an analgesic (pain reliever), as an expectorant (for clearing the throat and lungs), and in splinting.
     All in all, Phragmites australis has been used in many regions of the West- the Great Plains, the Great Basin, the Owens Valley, California, the Lower Colorado River Basin, the Southwest, and the Mexican central plateau and for many things- eating the rhizomes, the seeds and young fruits and leaves, for smoking, salt, and sweet products, as fibers, as tools and implements, for transportation, and for housing material.
 And further East:
    The plant was also known in the Southern Appalachians and used as a taffy-like novelty, a practice which apparently spread to the European population (Anon. 1961; Core 1967). Interestingly, so far, I have found very little specific mention of ethnobotanical Phragmites use in the American Northeast. It was used by the Iroquois as a medicine for soaking corn seed before planting (Moerman 1998). Unfortunately, this reference is the only one I have come across so far describing the use of Phragmites in the Northeastern United States/ Southern Canada. Micmac basketry used other materials (Gordon 1990).
 
    So far, I have no information on its possible use by Native Americans (including the Narragansett, Pequot, andWampanoag) of Southern New England, regarding possible Phragmites use. It is obvious to me that I have many more people to contact and much more research to do. Since I am very interested in gathering material in this area, I am hoping that placing this page on the web will inspire any individual or group having some acquaintance with the uses of Phragmites (particularly P. australis) to send me any verifiable anecdote, observation, research source, or other piece of information regarding this topic.
 Finally, certainly one of the most interesting aspects of Phragmites australis is its use in bioremediation. Although not considered in this ethnobotanical review, this function of the common reed might prove to be its most important future use.
 
References Cited

Anonymous (1961). "Vegetable Sweets Native to the U.S.A." Econ. Bot. 10(3): 242.

Australian National Botanic Gardens (1998a). Aboriginal Trail, http://osprey.erin.gov.au/anbg/aboriginal-trail.html

Australian National Botanic Gardens (1998b). Aboriginal Plant Use in South-Eastern Australia. Common Reed, Phragmites australis, http://www.anbg.gov.au/aborig.s.e.aust/phragmites-australis.html

Bailey, C., and Avinoam Danin (1981). "Bedouin Plant Utilization in Sinai and the Negev." Econ. Bot. 145-162.

Baranov, A. I. (1967). "Wild Vegetables of the Chinese in Manchuria." Econ. Bot. 21(2): 140-155.

Bodner, C. C., and Roy E. Gereau (1988). "A Contribution to Bontoc Ethnobotany." Econ. Bot. 42(3): 305-369.

Brown, L. (1979). Grasses: An Identification Guide. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co.

Browner, C. H. (1985). "Plants Used for Reproductive Health in Oaxaca, Mexico." Econ. Bot. 39(4): 482-504.

Cain, H. T. (1967). Pima Indian Basketry. Phoenix, Heard Museum of Anthropology and Primitive Arts.

Core, E. L. (1967). "Ethnobotany of the Southern Appalachian Aborigines." Econ. Bot. 21(3): 198-214.

Cornell, U., Dept. of Floriculture and Ornamental Horticulture (1998). Organic media. http://www.cals.cornell.edu/dept/flori/growon/media/organic.html

Cruz, A. A. d. l. (1978). "The Production of Pulp from Marsh Grass." Econ. Bot. 32: 46-50.

Cunningham, A. B., and S. J. Milton (1987). "Effects of Basket-weaving Industry on Mokola Palm and Dye Plants in Northwestern Botswana." Econ. Bot. 41(3): 487-402.

Ebeling, W. (1986). Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America. Berkeley, University of California Press.

Francis, J., Peter (1984). "Plants as Human Adornment in India." Econ. Bot. 38(2): 184-209.

Gallmo, O. (1998). Swedish (Dalecarlian) Bagpipes, http://www.docs.uu.se/~crwth/bagpipes/swedish/.

Gordon, J. (1990). Micmac Indian Basketry. The Art of Native American Basketry. F. W. Porter, III. New York, Greenwood Press.

Heiser, C. B., Jr. (1979). "The Totora (Scirpus californicus) in Ecuador and Peru." Econ. Bot. 32: 222-236.

Isenberg, I. H. (1956). "Papermaking Fibers." Econ. Bot 10(2): 176-193.

Jain, S. K. (1991). Dictionary of Indian Folk Medicine and Ethnobotany. Lucknow, National Botanical Research Institute.

Johnston, A. (1970). "Blackfoot Indian Utilization of the Flora of the Northwestern Great Plains." Econ. Bot. 24(3): 301-324.

Kenk, V. C. (1963). "The Importance of Plants in Heraldry." Econ. Bot. 17(3): 169-179.

LaForet, A. (1990). Regional and Personal Style in Northwest Coast Basketry. The Art of Native American Basketry. F. W. Porter, III. New York, Greenwood Press.

Mathias, M. E. (1978). "The California Desert." Fremontia 6(3): 3-6.

McGhee, Colin (1998). A Brief History on Thatching, http://www.thatching.com/at.html

Moerman, D. M. (1998). American Indian Ethnobotany. Dearborn, MI. http://www.umd.umich.edu/cgi-bin/herb/

Morgan, W. T. W. (1981). "Ethnobotany of the Turkana: Use of Plants by a Pastoral People and their Livestock in Kenya." Econ. Bot. 35(1): 96-130.

Muthuri, F. M., and J. I. Kinyamario (1989). "Nutritive Value of Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus, Cyperaceae), a Tropical Emergent Macrophyte." Econ. Bot. 43(1): 23-30.

Nevel, B. E. (1996). Sustainable Reed Harvesting in the Danube Delta Biosphere Reserve, Romania. Department of Forestry and Wildlife Management. Amherst, University of Massachusetts.

Norfolk Reed Growers' Association (1972). The Reed ("Norfolk Reed"). Norwich, Norfolk Reed Growers' Association.

Pennanin, P. (1995) Tryptamine Carriers. http://deoxy.org/trypfaq.htm

Prindle, T. (1996) Phragmites. http://www.lib.uconn.edu/NativeTech/plantgath/phragmit.htm

Rudescu, L. (1976). The Use of Sawgrass for Paper Product Manufacture: An Examination of Properties. Biological Control of Water Pollution. J. Tourbier, and Robert W. Pierson, Jr. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

Tanner, C. L. (1990). Southwestern Indian Basketry. The Art of Native American Basketry. F. W. Porter, III. New York, Greenwood Press.

Thesiger, W. (1958). "Marsh Dwellers of Southern Iraq." National Geographic 13(2): 205-239.

Timbrook, J. (1990). "Ethnobotany of Chumash Indians, California, Based on Collections by John P. Harrington." Econ. Bot. 44(2): 236-253.

Turner, N. C., and Marcus A. M. Bell (1971). "The Ethnobotany of the Coast Salish Indians of Vancouver Island." Econ. Bot. 25(1): 63-99.

Veber, K. (1978). Propagation, Cultivation, and Exploitation of Common Reed in Czechoslovakia. Pond Littoral Ecosystems. D. Dykyjova, and J. Kvet. Berlin, Springer-Verlag.

Wassel, G. M., et al. (1985). "Alkaloids from the rhizomes of Phragmites australis Cav." Scientia Pharmaceutica 53: 169-170.

Weiss, E. A. (1979). "Some Indigenous Plants Used Domestically by East African Coastal Fishermen." Econ. Bot. 33(1): 35-51.
 
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