GRASSES
Native to Wetlands

COMMON REED
(Phragmites australis)

Description  

The tallest native grass of the prairie region does not grow in prairie, but rather in wetlands. Large, dense patches of 
common reed, with stems reaching to over 10 feet (3 m) tall, are common in wet ditches and marshes, and at the edges of 
lakes, rivers and streams throughout the state and country. By late summer, large plume-like panicles, up to 16 inches (40 
cm) long, wave in the wind, like so many tan feather dusters at the tops of the stiff slender culms . The fluffy panicles remain 
aloft on the cane-like culms well after frost and into the winter. 

 
The genus name of common reed, Phragmites , is from the Greek language and means "growing in hedges," a reference to the
plant's dense, uniformly tall growth along water's edge. The second name, australis , is Latin and means "southern." The latter seems inappropriate, given the wide distribution of the plant.

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.
Species Distribution 
Distribution 

Common reed has been described as the most widespread flowering plant. It is found worldwide, except for the Amazon 
Basin of South America and in parts of tropical Africa. In South Dakota, this grass occurs in marshy habitats statewide, 
although it appears to be uncommon in the Black Hills. 

Because the plant can reach water that is well below the soil surface, it is sometimes seen on hillsides or embankments
where the water table is perched near the surface. Thus the common reed is a good indicator of a shallow water table when
no surface water is present. Common reed is also quite salt tolerant, so it is often found in wetlands having high salt content
in the water, including estuaries.

Natural History

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.

Significance

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
raccoons.

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.

Glossary
 

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.

References
 

Fasset, N. C. 1957. A Manual Of Aquatic Plants. Univ. of Wisconsin Press, Madison, WI.
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.

Written by:
Gary E. Larson, Dept. of Biology & Microbiology, South Dakota State University, Brookings, SD 57007-0595. 1995.

Illustration from:
USDA Soil Conservation Service, Midwest Wetland Flora, Lincoln NE. 68508

Reviewed by:
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.