Odds are good you have, and now that I’ve pointed it out you’ll probably see it all over the place.Tall, with a distinctive feathery plume that sticks out above the snow lines all winter long, Phragmites australis is an attractive tall grass that unfortunately is one of Canada’s worst invasive species.
Phragmites australis is the scientific name for the European Common Reed, which is native to most of Europe and Asia. In fact, it looks an awful lot like the native species of Phragmites in North America, which caused a fair bit of confusion when it first started becoming invasive.
Genetic analysis of the plant revealed a cryptic invasion – the invasive phragmites was a nearly identical species that was just different enough to let it take over!
So what’s the big deal? If it’s so similar to its native counterpart, how can invasive phragmites be so bad?
The short answer is: many reasons! It grows so densely that it shades out other plants, and secrets herbicides from it’s roots to suppress competitors. It’s hardy and tolerant to a variety of conditions and can survive many disasters. It spreads quickly through its underground root network and by seed. Like many invasive plants, it doesn’t have a lot of natural enemies, so it forms dense monocultures that make terrible habitat for insects, birds, amphibians and all of the other species that normally occupy a wetland before phragmites takes over.
Sound bad? Add the features “highly flammable”, “water guzzling” and “carbon emitting” to the description and it’s easy to see why many consider it Canada’s worst invasive plant.
So what do we do about it? Unfortunately, phragmites (or phrag, as people call it – maybe because it sounds like a curse word!) is too well established in North America to be eliminated, but there are many ways to limit its spread and protect sensitive species and areas.
Large scale infestations are usually managed with herbicides, controlled burns, mowing, or some combination of the above. Small scale infestations can be eliminated locally without herbicides, though it can be labour intensive. Repeated cutting, digging or drowning of the plants can remove small stands.
Biological control – where a native enemy of the invasive species is introduced after researchers can show it is safe and effective – is the best form of invasive species control, but unfortunately it’s not on the horizon for phrag any time soon.
What can you do? Avoid spreading it! Learn to recognize it, don’t move it around intentionally, and take a few minutes after outdoor activities to clean off any excess plant material or mud that could be hiding seeds or root stock. This is a good strategy for controlling many invasive plants and is sometimes called the Play Clean Go method – you can follow the program on Twitter!
Many groups, like the Ontario Phragmites Working Group (www.opwg.ca), have online resources for individuals or municipalities battling phrag (and other invasive species), and often host workshops or webinars on different control methods. There may also be a local group in your area that does phragmites removal or monitoring that you can join or support, and many groups have Early Detection/Rapid Response networks (http://edrrontario.ca/) to nip plant invasions in the bud. Supporting conservation authorities and other groups doing research into biological control is also helpful.
Fighting invasive species sometimes seems like an uphill battle, but there have been great success stories, and with a coordinated effort and a little education, protecting our natural habitats and rare species from this threat is very possible!
Photo by Leslie Wood.
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