An invasive species of wetland reed has the potential to wipe out entire habitats in Eastern Ontario, if it is not taken seriously.
Phragmites Australis is a tall perennial wetland plant from Europe that is closely related to the native species Phragmites Americanus. It is a tall reed with a thick stem and a plume-like tip that you may have noticed along highway 416. Despite their almost decorative appearance, they are a huge issue for our ecosystems. They grow so aggressively, and form such dense stands, that they have the potential to take over entire habitats, endangering the lives of the native plants and animals that live there.
Dr. Fred Schueler and Aleta Karstad of Bishops Mills have been tracking the spread of the invasive Phragmites since the 1990s. Fred says that the Phragmites are thought to have been spread by attaching to the treads of construction equipment. “That is how the 416 became walled with them,” he says. Once a stand is established, the plants have the ability to send rhizomes (or runners) under or across the ground to establish another grouping of them further into the bush. Fred says it is not uncommon for these runners to grow up to 10 metres in a single year.
Although these roadside stands of Phragmites may seem harmless, the very fact that they are not native to this area poses an issue. In Europe, where this type of Phragmites is prevalent, there are insects that eat it, and birds that are specialized to live within the dense stands. In North America, we don’t have the same kind of wildlife, so very few things can live within it, once it has taken over. In Long Point Bay, along the shores of Lake Erie, Phragmites have taken over many of the marches where some particularly rare species live. “It has filled in ponds where some endangered toads breed,” Fred says. “It has completely changed the ecology of the area.”
Steps are being taken in many parts of the province to stop the Phragmites from spreading. Fred says stands have been sprayed with herbicide in Long Point Bay, as well as along the 401 in Scarborough and the 402 near London, Ontario. While this is a positive step, it does nothing to combat the issue in our area, which is becoming more of a problem by the day. Fred says the area that is most at risk at the moment is called the Long Swamp Orchid Fenn, a wetland in Leeds County that is home to many rare and at-risk species. He says the area was supposed to be sprayed last year, but, somehow, the job got lost in the shuffle. “We are trying to get them back on the case, because it’s the most dangerous stand we have in the area.”
If steps are not taken to control the Phragmites, they will continue to spread, fill in marshes and roadsides, and kill native flora and fauna. Using the established protocols that have been developed for spraying in other parts of Ontario is the best way to stop them before they cause more damage.