PHRAGMITES, THE INVADER

Phragmites (pronounced “fragmitees” by some), are those very tall (up to 15 feet) feathery fronds that clog ditches and ponds. They have the dubious distinction of being labeled as the “worst” invasive plant species in all of Canada by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada in 2005. Their incessant march through the watercourses of Southern Ontario has only continued since that time. Their reputation as worst invader is well deserved. The dense root systems of phragmites, in addition to choking out native plants, also produces two distinct toxins, which destroy virtually every plant with which they come into contact. Phragmites thus decrease biodiversity, destroy habitat for other species and (because of the dense root systems) don’t allow for areas to drain properly. They are often the first plants to establish themselves in disturbed areas – just watch what grows up in ditches that have been scraped clean of other vegetation. It has even been suggested that nothing will nest in them and, unlike the cattails that they often choke out, phragmites do not process the nitrogen and phosphorus from agricultural runoff.

Phragmites are difficult to get rid of. The Province of Ontario has strict regulations on both what herbicides can be used and when they can be applied (only when there is no standing water as millions of people depend on these watersheds for drinking water). The Province also has regulations on the cleaning of any equipment that goes near stands of phragmites because they are spread so easily. Controlled burns are sometimes used as is mowing or cutting (which should be done when the plants are just into flowering). Often multiple methods are used together and are still not always successful.

Here at LECC, we see the invader everywhere. It stands in the shallower water throughout the marsh, towering above the remaining stands of cattails that survive in the deeper water; fronds dangle into the road along the marsh; and, at the east end the invader has completely taken over large areas. When we travel on county roadways, our view of oncoming cross traffic is often obstructed by a thick curtain of phragmites. What can we do? Do not disturb the edge of the marsh. If you find one or two plants on the north side of your leased land, pull them out or cut the flowers before they seed. Do not take ATV’s, golf carts, tractors, etc. near the edge of the marsh so the seeds are not carried to other areas. And, finally, appreciate those gently swaying cattails that don’t kill other forms of vegetation; that provide welcome nesting habitat for many species; that process agricultural chemical runoff; that, in other words, have been a longstanding symbol of a healthy watershed, and deservedly so. Nurture the cattails.

Your Environmental Awareness Representative, Gloria Mitchell
January 2021