Report from the Field: Phragmites australis

By Forest Schenck

What’s in a name? The Greek or Latin roots of a scientific name often describe some unique or defining characteristic of the species in question. For instance, the etymology of Phragmites australis reveals that the genus name is derived from the Greek word phragma meaning hedge or fence and the species name (australis) means southern in Latin. Likewise, species common names are often equally informative. For example, Phragmites australis is ‘the common reed’, which suggests that this plant is abundant and likely grows in wetlands. Thus, when I tell you that I am working on research involving Phragmites australis, it’s no surprise that this involves bushwhacking through ‘hedge-like’ patches of these plants in the wetlands of 8 different states from Massachusetts southward to the Carolinas. It’s all in the name!

A serene sunset at a field site on the St. Jones River Estuary in Delaware
A serene sunset at a field site on the St. Jones River Estuary in Delaware

However, just as names can be informative, they may also mask complexity, especially across regions. For instance, when I stopped at a drive-thru to order a “coke” after a long day bushwhacking through the Phragmites collecting samples and taking measurements in Rhode Island, I received a Coca-Cola. However, when I walked into Bojangles’ (a southern chain restaurant of chicken and biscuit fame) after a long, hot day of sampling in South Carolina and ordered a “coke”, I was faced with a flurry of questions; I needed to specify the type of soda because “coke” means soda, not just Coca-Cola, in the southeastern US. This is just one example out of many where words take on different meanings depending on the region in which they are used. Scientists might call this phenomenon biogeographic variation in the meaning of the word coke. Just as the meaning of words may vary across regions, the characteristics or traits of a single species may also vary across regions. For instance, Phragmites plants may grow at different rates in the north compared to the south. Thus, Phragmites in the north may differ from Phragmites australis in the south, but we call both Phragmites australis.

Goodwin Island VA
Abundant Phragmites at a field site in Goodwin Island, Virginia

An additional layer of nuance to this story is the existence of multiple varieties of Phragmites australis called “strains.” These strains vary in their traits as well. For instances, strains originating from Europe tend to be faster growing and hardier than their American counterparts. Over the past 50 years, multiple European strains have been introduced to North America and spread throughout the East Coast. Our research focuses on an especially widespread Phragmites strain that was introduced to North America from Europe know as Haplotype M.

While you may not recognize the name, chances are you've seen the invasive Common Reed (Phragmites australis) growing on roadsides and other human impacted wetland areas
While you may not recognize the name, chances are you’ve seen the invasive Common Reed (Phragmites australis) growing along roadsides and other human impacted wetland areas

Ok, so Phragmites along the East Coast may be different, but so what? Why might this matter? Phragmites has recently increased in abundance in wetlands along the East Coast. This increase has been attributed to the introduction of multiple strains from Europe that are faster growing and hardier, such as the Haplotype M strain that we study. We know that these invasive strains of Phragmites can be harmful to wildlife in certain instances (especially when they grow in large patches and exclude other native plants) and many eradication methods have been utilized from bulldozers to biological controls. A better understanding of biogeographic variation in invasive Phragmites may help target patches of Phragmites for eradication by identifying areas where the characteristics of the plants or environment result in the greatest likelihood for expansion of the Phragmites patch. In instances where Phragmites may have already taken over, understanding variation in Phragmites traits may help identify the most effective eradication methods because Phragmites with different characteristics or in different environments may respond differently to various eradication treatments.

fiddler burrows
Marsh inhabitants like fiddler crabs and racoon can be identified by their burrow holes (left), and tracks (right) respectively, while others, like gators (below) prefer to hide in plain sight.

racoon tracks













Thus, while it may make little difference if you get a Sprite instead of a Coca-Cola (after all, they are both refreshing after a long day in the field amongst the heat, mud, insects, and Phragmites!), understanding regional differences in characteristics of Phragmites may greatly assist in the management of this invasive species.



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