History of Phragmites australis
a Paleontological and Archaeological Perspective
One of the most interesting aspects of Phragmites
australis (common reed) is its unclear history: where does it fit into
the flora of the Northeast region and New England? Is it a native species
which formerly was not invasive in nature? If so, how and when did it first
arrive? Did it spread here gradually in pre-columbian times from from the
Southeast or transcontinentally from the Southwest? Can its much-noted
invasivity be attributed to recent environmental changes of an anthropogenic
nature? Has the native species itself changed, gaining invasive properties?
Or was the native species overwhelmed and replaced by a later, introduced,
and more aggressive one and that is what we are seeing today? Finally,
is it possible that Phragmites is truly an alien species, introduced
to the Northeast by European settlers? Several of those who study
or deal with it believe that the plant is not indigenous (Lelito
n.d.), perhaps brought by Europeans with colonization (Prindle
1996). Others call it a native plant (Brown 1979).
Current opinion by regional biologists seems to favor replacement (Standley,
reported in Buchsbaum 1991).
Paleological and archaeological evidence of
Phragmites in the Northeast is rare. Hollick (1897,
p. 122) describes some culm and rhizome pieces found in pre-glacial
deposits on Staten Island, N.Y. as being most like Phragmites because
other similar fossil remains "have been described and figured under that
genus, and not necessarily because our specimens are supposed to belong
in it without question, although they certainly represent some grass".
He gives the remains the specific name Phragmites aquehongensis,
from "Aquehonga", the Native American name for Staten Island.
One core from Stonington in southeastern Connecticut
taken in a study of tidal marsh history revealed only Phragmites
rhizomes at its lowest level (Niering, Warren, and Weymouth
1977). Higher in the same core, salt water grasses Distichlis spicata
and Spartina species (patens and alterniflora) appear.
Since the level containing the reed lies at the bottom of a 1.04 meter
core, it has been interpreted as evidence that Phragmites (not considered
a salt water species) has been present in Southern New England for more
than 3000 years since "prior to 3000 to 4000 years ago the sea level rose
so rapidly that significant areas of tidal marsh probably could not develop
along the North Atlantic Coast" (Niering, Warren, and Weymouth
1977, p. 3).
Marks, Lapin, and Randall (1993)
state that the evidence that Phragmites was here long before European
contact is convincing, as shown by the 3,000 year old peat core and also
by archaeological evidence from the Southwest. Tiner (1996,
p. 4) using the Niering, Warren, and Weymouth reference states that
that it has been part of our New England flora for eons, again based upon
the evidence that it "has been found in 3000-year old peat cores extracted
from Connecticut salt marshes".
Besitka's (1996) research
that there are two different kinds of Phragmites australis
along the Atlantic Coast, a less aggressive earlier form and a recent more
invasive one. Measuring guard cell size, glume length, and pollen size
as indicators of ploidy level, she studied field samples from 23 sites
from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to Cape May, New Jersey and also four series
of herbarium samples over time. She noticed a changeover historically from
hexaploidy to tetraploidy in these four series which occurred in the later
part of the 19th century and indicated that the form recovered from several
sites along the Atlantic Coast is a tetraploid and more invasive than the
earlier hexaploid form.
Cores from a site on the south shore of Long
Island, N.Y. revealed that in the transformation of that site from xeric
to mesic to shrub transition,there was a Phragmites australis predominance
(around 1700 AD) followed by a Typha marsh beginning around 1730 (Clark
Proceedings of the conference "The Importance
of Wetlands in Northeastern Prehistory" (Nicholas
1991a) emphasized that since the resource base of wetland settings
may be more more productive, diverse, and reliable than those of many other
parts of the landscape, more choices and greater opportunities for human
occupation might be found there. Nicholas (1991b) states
that several core and secondary areas of human habitation (both synchronic
and diachronic) that included wetlands have been identified along the southern
New England coasts. Recovery of "a host of remarkably preserved artifacts..."
from wetland sites has spurred archaeological research into these areas
and at present there are many such projects throughout the Northeast (Nicholas
1992, p.1). Unfortunately, according to McBride (1991)
there are very few stratigraphic studies of smaller wetlands, since research
has focused on larger ones with the goal of reconstructing regional climatic
or vegetational sequences. In any case (to the best of my knowledge so
far), no Phragmites australis has been reported from these sites.
While archaeological proof of Phragmites'
presence in the Northeast remains rare, the American Southwest provides
a little better evidence. The dry environment of such sites favors the
preservation of artifacts. Cordova Cave in New Mexico, a site used for
human habitation from about 300 B.C. to about 1100 A.D., has been reported
to contain Phragmites remains in archaeological context (Kaplan
1963). Red Bow Cliff Dwelling in Arizona has yielded evidence that
it was used to form the bodies of cigarettes used by the Native Americans
living there ca. 1324-1400 A.D. (Adams 1990). Bat
Cave in New Mexico yielded 28 cigarette butt fragments identified as Phragmites
(Dick 1965) but it was stated by C. E. Smith, the expedition botanist (Kaplan
pers. comm. 1998, from Smith 1950), that it
was not present there.
Miocene beds at Fort Union, Dacotah (sic)
have yielded "numerous fragments of what seems to be a species of Phragmites"
(Newberry 1870, p. 38). The collector, Dr. Hayden,
believed that they most closely resembled P. Oeningensis,
a fossil form of Phragmites recovered in central Europe in 1988
(International Organisation of Palaeobotany 1998).
Wet, anaerobic conditions such as those of
a coastal site capped by clay infill can also serve as good preservative
conditions for archaeological materials. Fossil rhizomes of Phragmites
have been found in Europe (Pohl 1953). Palaeobotanical
studies of ten settlement sites in the coastal areas of the Netherlands
whether dating from ca. 600 B.C. as time of earliest evidence of occupation
at one site to the tenth century A.D.as the latest date of occupation at
another, and with much evidence of individual site occupations within that
time frame, all showed Phragmites remains (fruits) (van
Zeist 1974). Another paleoenvironmental investigation in the Netherlands
(van Geel, de Lang, and Wiegers 1984) reported epidermal
fragments with the stomata of Phragmites recovered from a lateglacial
deposit (12 000- 11 500 BP).
A recent exhibition at the Arthur M. Sackler
Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution displayed plaster statues of human
forms from a prehistoric site in Jordan (9200-7000 B. P.). their cores
were made of Phragmites (Smithsonian Institution 1998).
There appears to be evidence of Phragmites
from the Pleistocene in Egypt (El-Saadawi 1975).
DeWet and Huckaby (1967) state that the plant
is portrayed on carved reliefs on a limestone slab forming part of the
palace of Sennacherib at Ninevah; if true, this depiction, which they state
is often mistakenly identified as being of sorghum (a plant whose origins
they study) might be the earliest of Phragmites.
Ancient Phragmites has also been reported
in South America. Archaeological evidence exists from several sites in
pre-Columbian Peru in the form of unworked stems, a grave mat fragment
of Phragmites stems with perpendicular strands of Typha were attached,
a container made from the stem, tubes filled with pigment and plugged with
cotton, as well as combs and spindles made of these reeds (Towle
As mentioned, one of the greatest problems
with the archaeological record is its incompleteness. Differences in disposal
and decay patterns might result in lack of evidence at a site even if the
plant was present and perhaps in use. As seen from the above examples,
successful recovery of Phragmites has occurred when environmental
conditions were very dry (as in the Southwest) or anaerobic (as in the
search for evidence of archaeological Phragmites began only recently
and has a long way to go. As I continue to explore the record for presence
or absence of the plant, I invite anyone having knowledge of sites which
I have not mentioned to contact me. Chances are that I have not yet located
that reference or have not had time to check it. Please let me know about
any mistakes or omissions I have made. Your help and interest will be much
Leslie H. Driscoll
University of Massachusetts
Boston, MA 02125-3393
Adams, K. R. (1990). "Prehistoric Reedgrass
(Phragmites) "Cigarettes" with Tobacco (Nicotiana) Contents:
A Case Study from Red Bow Cliff Dwelling, Arizona." J. Ethnobiol. 10(2):
Besitka, S. M. A. R., IHM (1996). An Ecological
and Historical Study of Phragmites australis along the Atlantic
Coast. Department of Bioscience and Biotechnology. Philadelpih, Drexel
Brown, L. (1979). Grasses: An Identification Guide.
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Buchsbaum, R. (1991). "Invaders in the Marsh." Massachusetts
Audubon Society (September): 24.
Clark, J. S. (1986). "Late-holocene vegetation and
coastal processes at a Long Island tidal marsh." J. Ecol. 74: 561-578.
de Wet, J. M. J., and J. B. Huckabay (1967). "The
origin of Sorghum bicolor. II. Distribution and domestication."
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Dick, H. W. (1965). Bat Cave. Santa Fe, The School
of American Research.
El-Saadawi, W. E.-S. (1975). On silicified rhizome
fragments of Phragmites communis Trin. from the Pleistocene of El-Fayum,
Egypt. Palaeontographica. Stuttgart.
Hollick, A. (1897). "A new fossil Grass from Staten
Island." Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club 24: 122-124.
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Cave, New Mexico." Econ. Bot. 17(4): 350-359.
Kaplan, L. (1998). Editor, Economic Botany. Conversation
of Mar. 10, 1998.
Lelito Environmental Consultants (n.d.). Restoration
of Post Island Marsh: Strategy for Control of the Common Reed, Phragmites
australis, Quincy, MA. Sagamore Beach, MA.
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VA, The Nature Conservancy.
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Wm. C. Brown Company.
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from Bat Cave." Botanical Museum Leaflets 14(7): 157-180.
Smithsonian Institution (1998). Making the statues.
Tiner, R. W., compiler (1996). Guidance Manual for
Controlling Common Reed (Phragmites australis), Prepared by the
Massachusetts Wetlands Restoration & Banking Program with Cooperation
from the Phragmites Working Group. 2nd Draft.
Towle, M. A. (1961). The Ethnobotany of Pre-columbian
Peru. Chicago, Aldine Publishing Co.
van Geel, B., L. de Lange, and J. Wiegers (1984).
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of a Lateglacial Deposit from Usselo (The Netherlands), Bases on
the Analysis of Micro- and Macrofossils." Acta Botanica Neerlandica 33(4):
van Zeist, W. (1974). "Palaeobotanical Studies of
Settlement Sites in the Coastal Area of the Netherlands." Palaeohistorica
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