Creature Feature -The Common Reed (Phragmites australis)

From Westport River Watershed Alliance

by Victoria Quennessen

 

You can find large patches of this tall reed near most water bodies in and around Westport, including Cockeast Pond or Emma Tripp Landing. It has gray-green leaves, and its flower head blooms purple in the late summer before turning white or silver.

A version of the common reed native to the United States (Phragmites australis subspecies americanus), has existed here since before the Europeans arrived in the fifteenth century. The settlers brought with them an invasive European variant which they used both to
reduce erosion and for roofing materials. Unfortunately, it grows faster and outcompetes its North American cousin. The European version can grow up to sixteen feet tall and blocks the sun from reaching smaller plants. It also releases acids into the soil from its roots, which prevents other seeds from sprouting. This helps the common reed to form dense patches and replaces native species like cattails, which provide food and shelter for animals like muskrats and waterfowl. These patches can cover almost half of a square mile, and provide resources to fewer local creatures.

Removal strategies include using a very strong herbicide called Round-Up, which is harmful to a wide variety of plants. Such herbicides can be transferred to and kill other area plants by tidal action. Another method includes burning the reeds down before the end of July, when they store most of their food.

However, their roots can survive, so the plants sometimes have to be burned three seasons in a row. A more modern clearing method includes the use of goats. Goats can eat away unwanted plants (including poison ivy!), reach where lawn mowers can’t, and provide an environmentally safer alternative to chemicals. Whatever the treatment method, it’s best to replant natives to keep the reeds from growing back right away. Next time you’re landscaping around wetlands, check out native plants like Salt Marsh Bulrush, Broad Leaved Cattail, and Saltmeadow Cordgrass.