Experts warn of invasive phragmites

ESCANABA — Phragmites, pronounced frag-MY-teez, are both native and non-native plants in the Upper Peninsula. The native reddish reed provides nourishment and nesting resources on the lake shore and in wetlands. The invasive species threatens the ecosystem by displacing native animals and foliage.

“Phragmites will grow in any wet areas, such as the shoreline, ditches and wetlands,” said Darcy Rutkowski, executive director of the Upper Peninsula Resource Conservation and Development Council.

Established invasive plants change native ecosystems and are difficult to eradicate. Non-native phragmites rapidly establish superiority over the native species. Its stem breaks down very slowly, forming a dense thatch and can grow 20 feet high, blocking out light to the shorter native vegetation. The invasive species starts growing earlier in the season and continues longer into the fall than the native phragmites.

“They spread primarily by underground rhizomes,” Rutkowski said. “They are perennial plants and we won’t see them re-sprouting here in the U.P. until later May or June, although the brown, dead standing stalks from last year’s plants may still be visible.”

Invasive phragmites, or Phragmites australis, is a common reed that looks different than the native reed. Both species can grow together and are warm season perennials.

Native phragmites provide healthy biodiversity. The native plant has a stem that is reddish-purple with shiny nodes. The leaf color is lighter than the non-native species with a yellow-green tint. The plant grows with other plants in a diverse plant community. Leaf sheaths fall off during the winter, leaving bare stems.

Non-native phragmites have a dull, hollow and rigid stem with tan-green nodes. The leaf is flat, smooth, dark blue-green and the plant grows into dense single stands that are typically very large, tall and dense. A group is hard to walk through easily. Flowers grow as dense branched clusters on the end of each stem and feather at maturity. The wider leaf sheaths do not fall off and are difficult to remove.

The easiest way to stop non-native phragmites is to catch them early. The younger plant may resemble the native species, but it will lack seed heads and the reddish-purple stem color. Invasive phragmites store energy in their underground horizontal stem network and grow stolons up to 50 feet long or longer during a season. Stolons are horizontal stems that spread above ground, and unlike the upright stems, can be quite red, leading many to confusion with the native species.

Anyone who believes they have invasive phragmites on their property is asked to contact Rutkowski at 906-225-0215 or phragmites@uprcd.org. Alternatively, landowners can contact Elise Desjarlais, coordinator of Lake to Lake Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area, at 906-226-8871, extension 116, or by email at L2LCISMA@gmail.com.

“We would come to their property to survey it and confirm if it’s really phragmites that they have growing there,” said Rutkowski.

A lot of work has gone into eradicating the non-native phragmites and restoring the ecosystem to what it was. Through grants, the Upper Peninsula Phragmites Coalition has helped landowners at no cost to identify and destroy the invasive plant.

Before invasive phragmites were treated in Delta County, the soil type had changed, and some landowners along the coast were unable to enjoy the lake with the non-native plants growing so high according to Desjarlais.

“We are rid of them now,” said Desjarlais. “We’ve really knocked it back and we’re watching Green Bay. They have big populations of it growing down there.”

Desjarlais and the coalition are hoping the invasive species doesn’t start up the coast. Traveling of the invasive species is mainly due to humans.

“Contaminated ballast water in ships from Europe brought over the invasive phragmites and established areas in previous centuries,” said Desjarlais. “In Louisiana they actually use it to help stop flood waters.”

Phragmites are not the only invasive species in Michigan being watched and controlled. Plants, insects, diseases, mollusks, fish, mammals, birds and crustaceans are all categories on a Michigan watch list. The list can be found at www.michigan.gov/invasives.

Landowners and gardeners can be proactive by knowing the list of invasive plants and report any found on their property. There are currently seven terrestrial plants on the watch list in Michigan, the Asiatic sand sedge, Chinese yam, Himalayan balsam, Japanese stiltgrass, Kudzu, Mile-a-minute weed and Japanese chaff flower.

“Any known infestations should be reported to our local CISMA group or conservation districts,” said John Bauman fisheries biologist to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources – Fisheries Division Escanaba Field Office.

Desjarlais advises to contact CISMA if the invasive phragmites are established. If the plant is just starting to take hold and there are just a few stems, the rhizomes can be cut with a shovel.

“It depends on the size,” said Desjarlais. “A 15 foot wall of phragmites would be tough to treat. We would be happy to do the treatment for you.”

The coalition is working a cost share program with landowners who are controlling phragmites. By controlling the invasive species it brings property value up and helps the ecosystem.

“We will do our site visits in early July when they are tall enough to see more easily and we do the treatment in September when the pants are flowering, tasseled out,” said Rutkowski. “We will also have a little funding to treat newly discovered phragmites sites in the interior of the counties, sites that have never been treated before.”


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