The History of Phragmites australis
from 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 1986).
     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 1961).
     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 European contexts).
 
Please Comment

    My 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 appreciated.

Leslie H. Driscoll                                          Leslie.Driscoll@umb.edu
Biology Department
University of Massachusetts
Boston, MA 02125-3393

 References Cited

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): 123-139.

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 University: 55+.

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

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." Evolution 21: 787-802.

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.

Kaplan, L. (1963). "Archeoethnobotany of Cordova 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.

Marks, M., Beth Lapin, and John Randall (1993). Element Stewardship Abstract: Phragmites australis (Common Reed). Arlington, VA, The Nature Conservancy.
 
McBride, K. A. (1992). "Prehistoric and Historic Patterns of Wetland Use in Eastern Connecticut." Man in the Northeast 43: 10-23.

Newberry, J. (1870). "Notes on the Later Extinct Floras of North America with Description of New Species of Fossil Plants: Phragmites (sp.)." Annals of the Lyceum of Natural History: 38-39.

Nicholas, G. P. (1991a). "Putting Wetlands into Perspective." Man in the Northeast 42: 29-38.

Nicholas, G. P. (1991b). "Places and Spaces: Changing Patterns of Wetland Use in Southern New England." Man in the Northeast 42: 75-98.

Nicholas, G. P. (1992). "Directions in Wetlands Research." Man in the Northeast 43: 1-9.

Niering, W. A., R. Scott Warren, and Carolyn G. Weymouth (1977). "Our Dynamic Tidal Marshes: Vegetation Changes as Revealed by Peat Analysis." Connecticut Arboretum Bulletin 22(Jan 1977): 2-12.

Pohl, R. W. (1954). How to Know the Grasses. Dubuque, Wm. C. Brown Company.

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

Smith, C. E., Jr. (1950). "Prehistoric Plant Remains from Bat Cave." Botanical Museum Leaflets 14(7): 157-180.

Smithsonian Institution (1998). Making the statues. http://www.si.edu/asia/html/plantco.htm

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). "Recontruction and Interpretation of the Local Vegetational Succession of a Lateglacial Deposit from Usselo (The Netherlands),  Bases on the Analysis of Micro- and Macrofossils." Acta Botanica Neerlandica 33(4): 535-546.

van Zeist, W. (1974). "Palaeobotanical Studies of Settlement Sites in the Coastal Area of the Netherlands." Palaeohistorica XVI: 226-376+.
 

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