Species Profile: Phragmites australis

Andy in the fieldRain loomed most of this past weekend and Sunday was a reminder that spring hasn’t yet closed the door on winter.  Yet, with the snow long gone and the temperature creeping higher, we sneaked an expedition to nearby Potato Creek State Park for some early spring edibles.

There is a native variety of Phragmites australis, the common reed, and 150 years ago it was considered uncommon.  Native Americans used it for a wide variety of goods such as flutes and woven mats.  More recently however,  the abundance and range of Phragmites increased dramatically.  The growth was initially chalked-up to anthropogenic changes in habitat, pollution, soil chemistry and hydrology.  Then, in 2002, Saltonstall demonstrated that this expansion was actually an invasion of a non-native haplotype which had replaced the natives and expanded into new regions.  This non-native type is more closely related to populations in Europe, Asia, and Africa, and is now the most common in North America.

Phragmites distribution. Map by eddmaps.org

We weren’t expecting much green yet, but Phragmites shows you right where to look.  Last year’s tall brown stalks still wave above wetlands where this species invades, crowding out native vegetation, changing hydrology and restricting wildlife habitat with its dense growth.

Phragmites australis at Potato Creek State Park
Sheina in over her head. Phragmites at Potato Creek State Park. Photo by J. Deines

Distinguishing the North American native and the introduced type can be tricky.  We were directed to our spot by a local naturalist, and we double checked using this Phragmites Field Guide.

The whole of the plant is edible, and while I’m looking forward to syrup and porridge later in the year, now we’re after the young green shoots sprouting from the base of the reed.  Check back Wednesday for a simple recipe.

Phragmites young shoots
Tasty Phragmites young shoots. Photo by A. Deines




8 thoughts on “Species Profile: Phragmites australis

  • April 4, 2011 at 8:55 am

    Wow! Someone is using Phragmites as food! There is nearly as much going to waste as there is cattail, and near the same hungry people! This is terrific!

    • April 4, 2011 at 9:48 am

      Thanks for making this point. Coming at this from an invasive species perspective, we haven’t talked about the development potential much. In general though, the nexus of invasive, yet edible, species in sustainable development is a key component of my research. I’ve played with solar dehydrators in Zambia to try and work with food security, but of course, this type of phragmites is native on the Kafue River where I do research.

  • April 5, 2011 at 11:27 pm

    Any specific serving suggestions? By the looks of them I imagine you can eat the young shoots like asparagus?

    Just caught on to this whole invasivore thing and love it. I take great interest in this kind of stuff from a wild edibles perspective as well as for Permaculture.

  • April 5, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    Sorry for the double post but this got me thinking…

    In Permaculture invasive species like this aren’t necessarily always a bad thing. If a plant like does really well in your local climate one could use it as a means of water filtration (would have to research suitability of this species). Any overgrowth could be harvested as a food/fiber/nutrient source.

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