The Ethnobotany and Economics
of Phragmites sp. (especially
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, 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.
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
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 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 1985; Pennanin
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
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.
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Industry on Mokola Palm and Dye Plants in Northwestern Botswana." Econ.
Bot. 41(3): 487-402.
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Berkeley, University of California Press.
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Bot. 38(2): 184-209.
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