is a spectacularly tall perennial grass found on all continents except
Antarctica. Its full name, that given to it to reflect its taxonomic history,
is Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin. ex Steud. Most of us in New
England know it, however, by one of its many "common" names, that of "common
It is characterized by its towering height of up to four meters (about 14 feet) and its stiff wide leaves and hollow stem. Its feathery and drooping inflorescences (clusters of tiny flowers) are purplish when flowering and turn whitish, grayish or brownish in fruit. They wave like plumes in the breeze. Flowering occurs from July-October.
Phragmites is a colonial plant, spreading by rhizomes (underground stems) and capable of forming large stands or colonies arising from one or a few seeds or plant pieces. These colonies form along the margins of streams and in marshes and ditches. They can form in brackish water and in disturbed areas and their aggressive growth and tendency to outcompete other plants and form monospecific (one species) stands has many conservation biologists worried.
Various methods of control are being tried in attempts to restore salt water marsh areas which have become brackish (in between fresh water and sea water in salinity) because the tidal flow from the oceans has been hindered, usually by human intervention. Today, various governmental and non-governmental organizations can provide the interested citizen with much information on what can be done about monitoring such problems. For example, the Parker River Clean Water Association has a hard-cover book available for volunteers wanting to get involved with measuring tidal restrictions and The Nature Conservancy has a lot of information in its Element Stewardship Abstract on Phragmites australis.
There are many methods being attempted to eradicate or control the spread of this plant. These methods include cutting, mowing, disking, changing topography and salinity, pesticide application, burning, and covering with plastic. The list goes on and since there has been some concern expressed about the application of glyphosate Monsanto's trade name for this is Rodeo), I refer you to the EPA's page on the product.
The University of Florida has placed some great photographs of Phragmites on their Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants site. They will help you get a better idea of the size and look of this species, including closer views. See below.
The common reed is not universally disliked
by any means. It is used all over the world and employed in many ways and
in many areas it is an important and valued economic entity. In general,
today and in the past, Phragmites spp. have been harvested for building
housing and thatched
roofs, for making into boats, jewelry, pen tips, and paper.
Phragmites has been used for weapons and for hunting spears. In
the household, it could been seen in the form of mats, baskets, food, medicine,
smoking implements, clothing, and for sugar and salt products. In New England,
however, use of Phragmites has been difficult to document. A more
recently understood aspect of Phragmites is its role in bioremediation
(cleaning of waters containing waste material, including heavy metals and
sewage) and for that purpose, too, it is considered an important part of
ecosystems in Europe.
Phragmites products have been found in Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, South America, Mexico, the Western and the Eastern parts of the United States, practically everywhere that the plant grows. For a more in-depth look at this topic, try the page titled