Invasive Species: Phragmites

By Matt Forster

The story of phragmites is an immigrant’s story. It is the tale of a common reed from Europe—used there for thatching roofs—and how it rose to become the scourge of North American wetlands. If you live in Southeast Michigan, you’ve seen phragmites. This newcomer to the ecological scene has been overtaking roadside wetlands for years. Where you once saw cattails, tall grasses—usually well over 8 feet in height—now form a near impenetrable wall of vegetation.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMichigan is defined by water, a truth that is a bit deeper than describing our relationship to the Great Lakes. The state itself is chock full of wetlands. For generations marshes and swamps were seen as roadblocks on the highway of progress. An early history of Oakland County describes wetlands as unfortunate obstacles that can be redeemed by draining. The culture has changed a lot since the 19th century, and we are seeing a change in the public’s attitude toward wetlands. Yet, now, as Michigan as a whole is seeing a net gain in wetland acreage from year to year, those very acres are struggling with another threat. This one degrades the value of these unique ecosystems.

The Common Reed, or phragmites (pronounced frag MY teez), can refer to a number OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAof wetland grasses. Officially, when talking about the invasive strain of phragmites, we’re talking about Phragmites australis subsp. australis. This is to distinguish it from a less aggressive native, Phragmites australis subsp. americanus. The former can grow as tall as 15 feet, out-competing our native cattails and other plants for sunlight. As such, it is taking over every bit of wetland it can.

Here in Southeast Michigan, places like Harsens Island are completely inundated. While further inland, the spread of the grass is essentially unchecked. In addition to squeezing out native plants and creating an ever-expanding and rather boring monoculture, in populated areas phragmites increases the chance of wildfires and creates significant problems like decreased roadside visibility.

So what are property owners and community stewards to do? Here, the logical approach—cutting and mowing—will make matters worse. Phragmites growth is stimulated by mowing and most methods of mechanical removal. Towns and cities that have unwittingly tried to handle outbreaks with an army of mowers have not met with anything like success. The best method for removing phragmites involves the use of an herbicide in the fall, followed up by a prescribed burn in the winter. The use of herbicides around wetlands, however, is highly regulated. The state has provisions for landowners, but municipalities looking to address the problem find they need to hire a licensed professional.

Thankfully, there a number of resources for homeowners and municipalities. One of the best is the Oakland Phragmites & Invasive Species Task Force (OPIS). OPIS distributes informative brochures on phragmites and can point you to local companies that are experts in phragmites control.

About Matt Forster

A native of Michigan, Matt Forster has lived in various parts of the country and written five books based on his travel and experiences—Colorado: An Explorer’s Guide, Backroads & Byways of Michigan, Best Tent Camping Michigan, Best Hikes Near Detroit and Ann Arbor, and Backroads & Byways of Ohio. Matt recently completed his Master Naturalist certification. To find out more, visit his website

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