Phragmites

Early detection and rapid response is the key to controlling this fast-growing invasive.
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Pointe Mouille State Game Area
Native or not: The Phragmites subspecies americanus is native to Michigan and not considered troublesome, unlike the invasive subspecies australis. The Michigan Natural Features Inventory offers an online brochure to readily help distinguish between the two at mnfi.anr.msu.edu. // Photography Courtesy of Michigan Sea Grant

It grows like a weed — and that’s the problem. One stem becomes five, then 25 and 2,500. Blink and a 60-foot wall of tall grasses can be blocking your waterfront view.

The plant is called phragmites. State and federal natural resource managers consider the invasive variety a scourge, an extreme threat to native ecosystems including native phragmites. The long-stemmed grass, with its attractive seed head, is actually a common reed. People thatch roofs with it in the British Isles and in the Philippines, make brooms. But here in the Great Lakes, it is The Big Unwanted: Once it takes hold, it can crowd out every living plant and animal on a section of beach, wetland or shoreline.

“It’s scary stuff,” says Kelly Martin, coordinator of the Charlevoix Conservation District, which spearheads grassroots efforts to eradicate phragmites along Lake Michigan and Lake Charlevoix. “It’s not something you can ignore. It takes off so fast it will make your head spin. Early detection and rapid response are the key to controlling it.”

Get It Before It Spreads

Attempting to pull it out does no good. Phragmites spread from underground by sending out shooters called rhizomes. Seeds are transported by wind, ducks and other animals. It grows 15 feet tall and can spread 60 feet a year. Regional groups focused on to eradicating phragmites often resort to herbicides and sometimes fire.

Outside of obtaining a permit, “It’s not difficult once you find out how to control it,” says Bob Williams, an architect who resides on Harsens Island in Lake St. Clair by the St. Clair River. When he moved to the historic cottage community 15 years ago, phragmites grew everywhere. He began to treat them on his property and — noticing his success — a neighbor began to ask questions. When Williams invited him to come over that weekend for a lesson, 87 other property owners showed up.

Recognizing a need, Williams formed the Harsens Island Phragmites Committee, which offers annual workshops to island residents. He later was approached to provide assistance for the entire township and came to chair what would become the Clay Township Phragmites Management Advisory Board. Its formation led to increased cooperation between neighbors, who began pooling resources to buy phragmites-control equipment and chemicals.

“We had 8,600 acres of phragmites in the township three years ago — 14 percent of the land and water,” Williams notes. “So far we have been able to treat 1,500 acres. If we don’t continue to monitor and maintain those areas, they will return just like dandelions. We still have 7,000 acres left. As we can get grants or more property owners involved, we’ll continue to fight the battle.

“It’s a long-term project.”

Learn more about treatment options, permits and other resources at michigan.gov/deq (search “Phragmites”). For a list of County Conservation Districts around the state that offer phragmites control programs and community support groups, go to macd.org.


Award-winning writer and BLUE Undercurrents columnist Howard Meyerson resides in Grand Rapids.

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