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Managing phragmites in the water

By: Lauren Bell, ISC Community Education & Outreach Coordinator

European common reed, known more commonly as phragmites, can be found throughout Ontario. Native to Europe, this invasive wetland species is thought to have been brought over in the 1800s to be used as roof thatching. This invasive plant poses several issues such as creating dense stands that choke out native species, impeding wildlife from crossing, creating fire hazards with their dry, dead stocks, and creating traffic hazards by obstructing views. 

Before trying to manage phragmites, it is important to remember that there is a native variety present in Ontario as well. Distinguishing between the two is an important first step to any phragmites management plan. A great tool for identifying native vs. invasive phragmites can be found here, from the Great Lakes Phragmites Collaborative. 

When invasive phragmites is growing on land, management can include herbicide application, rolling, spading, and burning. However, when invasive phragmites is growing in water, manual removal by cutting and drowning is a more productive and efficient management option. Janice Gilbert of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group has created a useful summary for controlling phragmites through drowning the plant in water, as summarized below. 

To drown phragmites, cut the plant’s stalk as close to the sediment as possible to increase the probability of drowning the plant effectively. For cutting sparse stands of phragmites, Gilbert recommends using a raspberry cane cutter, sold from Lee Valley (pictured below), which allows for more selective cutting. 

For proper use of this tool Gilbert recommends: 

  • Hold the plant with one hand and with the other hand place the hooked blade against the stalk below the lowest leaf. Slide the blade down the stalk until it reaches the bottom, then give it a gentle tug toward you to sever the stalk. 
  • Be sure to remove all cut material from the water, as it can re-sprout causing further spread. Ice fishing sleds, canoes, kayaks, row boars, barges, etc. are useful for collecting and transporting the cut material to dry land. 
  • Do not compost phragmites unless the area is contained, and new shoots can be destroyed. If dried plants cannot be burned, burial to a depth of one metre or storage in plastic bags until rotten are good disposal options. 
  • If seeds are present, place the seed head inside a plastic bag and sever using pruners prior to cutting the stalk. Dispose of seeds only after they are rotten. 

For more information on manual control of invasive phragmites visit www.opwg.ca.