Phragmites stalks waving in the breeze
 
I. What is the Common Reed?
And why does it have New Englanders talking?

      Phragmites australis 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 reed."
    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.
 

To see a pen-and-ink illustration provided by the IFAS Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants...
To see their colorful gallery of enlargeable "thumbnail" photographic images of Phragmites...
 
References
 
  Brown, L. (1979). Grasses: An Identification Guide. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Co.
Pohl, R. W. (1954). How to Know the Grasses. Dubuque, Wm. C. Brown Company.
Tiner, R. W., Jr. (1988). Field Guide to Nontidal Wetland Identification. Annapolis, MD and Newton Corner, MA, Cooperative Publication of The Maryland Department of Agriculture and The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.


II.  Looking Backwards-
How long has Phragmites australis been around?
   Today scientists are looking at the common reed as an aggressive plant, behaving much like an "alien" species. Such a species, freed of its natural competitors and other environmental restraints, might be capable of taking over an area quite rapidly, especially when the area has already been subjected to disturbance. In the case of Phragmites, this disturbance is often  anthropogenic (caused by human beings), in the form of an action taken for the "benefit" of the people themselves, as has been done, for example at Belle Isle Marsh in Revere, Massachusetts.
    So far, the general opinion has been that Phragmites has long been in New England, but that another, more invasive form iof the plant is responsible for those areas being invaded and that the older form of Phragmites maintains a stable presence in those areas where it exists.
    There is evidence of "ancient Phragmites", both paleologically and archaeologically, for many areas of the world, including North America.  For a more complete examination of this evidence, try the page titled
"The History of Phragmites australis from a Paleontological and Archaeological Perspective"

III.  What is Phragmites used for?
Believe it or not, quite a lot...

     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

"The Ethnobotany and Economics of Phragmites sp. (especially P. australis)"
OR
If You are Ready to See Some Links to Interesting Wetlands Websites...
OR
To see some fun facts and factoids about Phragmites and perhaps add to them...
Above photo of Phragmites stalks waving in a Cape Cod breeze courtesy of Dr. Lawrence Kaplan
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These pages are still under construction by Leslie Driscoll...last updated May 24, 1999.