It is always important to be aware of what is happening in your community, so please be advised that you may have a threatening neighbor you never even knew about. Its name is exotic phragmites, and this seemingly innocuous plant has become a big issue. Literally!
What is Exotic Phragmites?
Before we get started on how to control exotic phragmites (also called invasive phragmites) populations, it is important to be able to identify it. Exotic phragmites is a large reed that can grow over 15 feet in height. It grows in wetland areas and once established, grows very rapidly and forms a dense monoculture (when there is only one type of plant in a given area) that inhibits the growth of native plants. There is also a strain of native phragmites that is smaller and does not pose the same threat as exotic phragmites. The easiest way to tell them apart is leaf structure and stem color. Native plants are reddish-purple at the base, the leaves come off easily, and during the fall, the plant loses them entirely. Invasive phragmites are green and the leaves are more difficult to pull off and stay attached to the plant year-round.
Why Is Exotic Phragmites Such a Concern?
Exotic phragmites has become a threat not only in Michigan, but in many other states as well. Exotic phragmites grows extremely fast, and when it is introduced into an area, it takes over. It is aggressive and because it’s incredibly adaptable and reproduces both through rhizomes (horizontal roots that send up new plant shoots) and through seed heads, it easily outcompetes the native plants in the area. Not only is this bad for the native plant species, it is also an issue for animal life. This monoculture not only doesn’t provide a source of food, but also does not provide shelter, as the plants grow too closely together to allow animals inside. This plant also poses serious problems to the human population as well. Because exotic phragmites grows so large, it can block views and take over previously usable spaces, significantly decreasing property values, and can restrict access to your land.
Exotic phragmites can also be a fire hazard. When the stems and leaves die and dry up, there is no way for the wind to scatter the debris, so it simply builds up. All it takes is a spark, and the entire stand can go up in flames, endangering nearby houses, property and people.
Getting rid of exotic phragmites can be a big task, and at times it may seem overwhelming. However, it is well worth your time and energy to keep this invasive plant at bay. The key to successful control is persistence. The same stand of exotic phragmites may need to be dealt with for multiple years in a row.
What Are My Options?
There are multiple methods of control, and using them in tandem will be far more effective than trying to use one single technique. What order you use them in and how effective the treatment will be depends on how well established the stand of exotic phragmites is. The three most common methods of control are mechanical, chemical, and prescribed burning.
Chemical treatment is normally the first method of control that is employed. This method uses herbicides to kill the plant. The two most common herbicides that are used on exotic phragmites are glyphosate based (such as Shore-Klear) and imazapyr based, which are usually applied with backpack sprayers, but can be applied to small stands of phragmites through injection into the stems or handswiping.
Before you begin applying chemicals though, it is very important to make sure that you have any necessary permits. If you are in the state of Michigan, you can visit michigan.gov and select Aquatic Nuisance Control for state permits and more information. If you live in the Great Lakes Coastal areas, it may be necessary to also apply for a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. You can either visit their website at lre.usace.army.mil or call the Detroit District at 1-888-694-8313.
Assess the phragmites stand and take note of a few different details. First, what is the surface area that it covers? Calculating this accurately is important, so that you know how much herbicide you will need. Also pay attention to how thick the stand is. If you cannot get through the stand easily to administer the herbicide, you may need to consider administering mechanical treatment first. This means that you will need to cut the stalks for easier access to the entire field. Also take note of where the phragmites is growing. Is it in the water or on dry land? This may change the application process.
When you are ready to apply the herbicides, it is important to make sure that you minimize overspray, as it is best to avoid damage to remaining native plants or getting herbicide into the water.
If you are not comfortable applying the chemicals yourself, you can always find a licensed applicator in your area. Harrietta Hills is licensed in the state of Michigan, please feel free to give us a call for professional help to get rid of your exotic phragmites problem!
Mechanical control is essentially the process of mowing the problematic area. You can use mowers, weed whackers or a hand cutting tool to perform this task. This process is most effective when done after herbicide application. Wait at least two weeks to give the herbicide plenty of time to be absorbed into the phragmites. Mowing will remove the dead stalks and promote native plant growth.
Because phragmites reproduces through both rhizomes and seed heads, it is possible to accidentally spread the plant when you mow. When you are done mowing, bagging and properly disposing of the plant matter can stop the seeds from spreading and also allows sunlight to get down to the ground, allowing native plants to grow back.
When you are cutting phragmites in a wetland area with a lawn mower, it is best to wait until winter when the ground is frozen. This provides safer, easier access and makes clean up simpler. Winter mowing also minimizes the impact on any existing native plants, as they are unlikely to be growing that time of year anyway. It is NOT recommended to use mowing alone, as this causes even more vigorous growth by the phragmites and will make the problem worse over time.
Prescribed Burning (EXTREME CAUTION RECOMMENDED)
Burning phragmites stands should be done at least two weeks after chemical treatment, although you shouldn’t wait more than a year to do so. Just like mowing, it is not recommended to use burning alone.
Although this method can be effective, it is very important to consider how safe it will be to burn in your particular area. Because mowing is an equally effective method of removing the stalks, burning should only be used when mowing is not an option and you can guarantee that the fire will not spread.
Fire can endanger lives and neighboring property and kill native plants and animals. If the patch of phragmites extends on to neighboring lands, there is no way to stop it from spreading, so please use extreme caution and make sure to obtain all proper permits if you choose to pursue this method!
Be prepared to repeat the process! Exotic phragmites is extremely resilient, and although it is certainly possible to get rid of it, make sure to monitor the area for the next few years and until all signs of this plant are gone.
Never hesitate to contact a professional or the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) with questions or for additional support. There are lots of groups who are dedicated to eradicating exotic phragmites, and many of them have wonderful resources that are more specific to your geographical area.
Harrietta Hills is licensed herbicide applicator in the state of Michigan. Please feel free to give us a call at (231) 389-2635, or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org for professional help to get rid of your invasive phragmites problem!