The tallest native grass of the prairie region does not grow in prairie,
but rather in wetlands. Large, dense patches of
The leaves of common reed are soft, flat and broad with sheaths that
overlap for most of the length of the purplish culm. The
blades range from 4 to 24 inches (10-60 cm) long and from 1/2 to 2 1/2 inches (1-6 cm) wide. The ligule is a very short
membrane about 1 mm long. When the panicle first emerges from the uppermost leaf on the culm, it is smooth and purplish.
As the seed head matures, the purple fades to tan and long silky hairs emerge from among the bracts to give the feathery
appearance. The mature panicles are attractive and sometimes cut and dried for use in floral arrangements.
Common reed has been described as the most widespread flowering plant.
It is found worldwide, except for the Amazon
Like most other plants that dominate wetlands, common reed forms typically
pure stands by vegetative reproduction . A
patch often develops from a single seedling that eventually produces a clone. Germination of the wind blown seed requires
exposed wet soil, so that new clones start from seed mainly during a wetland drawdown . Once established, the plant
produces stout, scaly rhizomes that branch and grow through the mud at the amazing rate of over 1 yard (about 1 meter) per
year, giving rise to new upright stems at evenly spaced intervals along their length.
During drought periods, some of the rhizomes can become stolons , creeping
over exposed mud as though in pursuit of the
retreating water's edge. Either way, the result is a rapidly spreading colony limited only by the need for water of the proper
depth (from within 3 feet of the soil surface to no deeper than 2 feet over the soil) and competition from other aggressive
marsh plants like cattail and bulrushes. No wonder the common reed is considered a weed in many parts of the world.
Common reed is of some value as protective cover for ducks during their
flightless molting period of late summer, and it
creates excellent nesting sites for several nongame marsh birds, including the abundant yellow-headed and red-winged
blackbirds. The rhizomes and young shoots are a favorite food of muskrats, and they can even be cooked for human food.
Common reeds also provide winter cover for resident wildlife species such as deer, pheasants, foxes, coyotes, and
Waterfowl biologists usually consider common reed to be an undesirable
plant in our marshes because of its tendency to
eliminate open water needed by ducks and their broods as feeding habitat. For this reason, large stands of reed are
sometimes mowed during winter or burned to provide openings. Thick stands of reed can even become an obstacle to large
game animals and humans, because the tough woody culms can remain standing for up to four years, creating a tangled
barricade of old stems. Seed production is generally poor and the grains are very small, so the plant really provides little if
any food for waterfowl.
Because it is so widely distributed, the common reed has been put to
various uses by people around the world. Natives of
the American Southwest made arrow shafts from the woody culms. The coarse stems were used for thatching and for
weaving mats. The stem fibers are tough and can be twisted into string used for cordage and nets. In the Danube Delta of
Romania (southeastern Europe) large areas of reed have actually been "farmed," with large scale harvesting of stems done
annually for paper pulp production. Thanks to their rapid and vigorous growth, reed colonies are efficient in removing
dissolved nutrients (mainly nitrates and phosphates) from polluted water. For this reason, common reed is sometimes
planted (along with cattails) into lagoons for the final treatment of municipal waste water. The extensive system of roots and
rhizomes also makes reed a good plant for protecting shorelines from wave erosion.
Bract - a reduced, modified leaf associated with the flowers.
Clone - a population of individuals all produced from the same plant, genetically identical to the parent.
Culm - the stem of a grass or grass-like plant.
Drawdown - the drying phase of a wetland when water declines leaving exposed soil.
Estuaries - marshes along coastlines where salty sea water mixes with fresh water from the inland.
Ligule - in grasses, a membrane or fringe of hairs that extends upward from the leaf sheath where it adjoins the leaf blade.
Panicle - a branched and rebranched flower or seed head in which the flowers are borne at the tips of the branches.
Rhizome - a modified, often scaly, underground stem that produces roots and new shoots along its length.
Stolon - similar to the rhizome but creeping over the soil surface.
Vegetative reproduction - development of a new individual from a non-sexual part of the plant such as from a leaf, stem or rhizome.
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Fernald, M. L. 1950. Gray's Manual Of Botany, eighth edition. D. Van Nostrand Co., New York, NY.
Larson, G. E. 1993. The Aquatic And Wetland Vascular Plants Of The Northern Great Plains. U.S. Gen. Tech. Rep.
RM-238. U.S.D.A Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station. Fort Collins, CO. 681 p.
Rogers, D. J. 1980. Edible, Medicinal, Useful And Poisonous Wild Plants Of The Northern Great Plains -- South Dakota
Region. Little Sioux Press, St. Francis, SD
Sculthorpe, C. D. 1967. The Biology Of Aquatic Vascular Plants. Edward Arnold Ltd., London.
Shay, J. M. and C. T. Shay. 1986. Prairie Marshes In Western Canada, With Specific Reference To The Ecology Of Five
Emergent Macrophytes. Canadian Journal of Botany 64: 443-454.
Swanson, G. A. & H. F. Duebbert. 1989. Wetland Habitats Of Waterfowl In The Prairie Pothole Region. Pp. 228-267 In
Northern Prairie Wetlands. A. Van Der Valk, ed. Iowa State Univ. Press, Ames, IA.
Gary E. Larson, Dept. of Biology & Microbiology, South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD 57007-0595. 1995.
USDA Soil Conservation Service, Midwest Wetland Flora, Lincoln NE. 68508
Scott Glup, Wetlands Manager, Sand Lake National Wildlife Refuge, Columbia, SD 57433.
Publication of the Common Reed fact sheet was funded by the South
Dakota Department of Game, Fish and Parks, Division
of Wildlife, Pierre, SD.