Taking phragmites personally

Article repurposed from http://www.thewhig.com/2017/05/25/taking-phragmites-personally

Leslie Wood is an unlikely crusader against phragmites, the most invasive plant species in North America.

A retired veterinarian from New Dublin, Wood has no background in plant biology and she knew little about the devil species as recently as three years ago.

Since then, however, she has developed an encyclopedic knowledge of phragmites, attending lectures and giving talks herself on the dangers of the plant. She travels Ontario to attend invasive species conferences; she is taking courses in pesticides so she can handle the toxic chemicals needed to kill it; and in the back of her SUV she carries a homemade phragmites-eradication kit complete with clippers, a floatable sleigh, boots and gloves so she can stop and chop the fast-spreading plant along roadways.

In a word, Wood is obsessed. “My friends call me the ‘Phrag Hag,’” she said with a laugh.

There is a lot to be obsessed about with phragmites. As the most invasive species in North America, the plant is slowly taking over Ontario.

It came to North America from Eurasia in the early 1900s but really began taking off on the eastern seaboard of the United States about 30 years ago. It is believed to have travelled to southwestern Ontario via lake freighters and has become a real problem in the St. Thomas-Windsor area and up the shore of Lake Huron to the Bruce Peninsula and into Georgian Bay.

Now it has gained a foothold in Leeds and Grenville and the rest of eastern Ontario.

If you can call a plant “evil,” then the adjective applies to phragmites. The grass-like plant with tan stalks, small blue-green leaves and thick seed heads can grow as high as 15 feet, but heights of eight feet or so are more common. It loves water and can grow as thick as 200 stalks per cubic metre, covering acres of wetlands.

The thick stands create “dead zones” — no fish can swim through it, turtles and frogs are blocked from their habitat and birds can’t land. In southwestern Ontario, there are reports of deer becoming entangled in the phragmites and dying. Near Windsor, a car went off the road into a stand of phragmites and wasn’t discovered for days, according to a story circulating at a recent invasive species conference.

Phragmites is a thirsty water sucker — its roots can grow to two metres in length, and it overconsumes water, making nearby native plants whither and die. It lowers the water table and it has lowered the level of the Great Lakes by centimetres. Its roots emit a poison to damage neighbouring plants.

In cottage country, phragmites blocks many a scenic view from waterfront residences, and when it dries it becomes extremely flammable, creating fire hazards.

In sum, there’s a lot to hate about phragmites.

Wood said the phragmites problem has grown under people’s radar partly because of its appearance.

“It’s not ugly. In a way it is pretty,” she said.

In fact, people used to collect it to put in flower arrangements, which might have contributed to its spread, she said. For years, some people assumed that municipalities planted phragmites as a decoration along roadsides, she added.

Since phragmites loves water, it spreads along lakes and the St. Lawrence River. It follows the 400-series highways in the ditches, and motorists driving Highway 401 will see countless stands of phragmites creeping along the highway.

Locally, there are stands of phragmites all over Brockville — a bunch of plants behind the Michaels store on Parkedale is a good example. The plant is creeping up North Augusta Road in the ditches and now threatening protected wetlands such as the Mac Johnson Wildlife Area. There are acres of it in the St. Lawrence River east of Rockport and at Mallorytown. It is thick along Highway 416 and County Road 43 near Kemptville. Kingston is rife with the stuff.

Still, the Leeds and Grenville phragmites problem is far less severe than in other areas such as in western Ontario, Wood said. That’s why municipalities and residents should take action now before the invasive plant spreads further, she said.

The problem, Wood said, is that phragmites is notoriously hard to kill.

To kill it, you have to kill the root system without erupting it. Before the plant goes to seed, you can cut the stems at the water and allow the water to literally drown the roots, but it has to be carefully done.

Controlled herbicides such as Roundup can kill it, but you can’t use herbicides on the water, and most phragmites is on water, she said. Cutting the plant can work, but only at certain times of the year. And even then, the cutter must go back the next two or three years to cut again.

Wood said the roots grow a metre deep and they can spread up to two metres in length. If pulled up, a small piece of root can start up to 15 other plants. The phragmites’ seeds can spread 10 kilometres on the wind.

Some municipalities such as St. Thomas, Ont., have aggressively attacked phragmites with boom mowers and other eradication methods, with some success, she said. On the Bruce Peninsula where Wood has a family cottage, cottagers hold “phrag parties,” in which they go out and cut the plants.

Wood said she wants to raise awareness in Leeds and Grenville and persuade county council to take action. Phragmites is easily spread by machinery that cleans out culverts, so municipalities should be aware of the problem, she said.

And since phragmites is restricted under the Ontario Invasive Species Act, it is illegal to transport it, Wood said. Municipalities could help by setting up central areas where the cut stalks could be burned, she said. Athens, for example, has an annual bonfire for Christmas trees. Perhaps it could do the same for phragmites, she suggested.

Despite her mission to eradicate it, Wood concedes a begrudging admiration for phragmites because of its stubbornness and hardy adaptation to North America.

“It’s a well-evolved plant and in a way you have to admire it,” Wood said.

A PLAN OF ATTACK

IF YOU FIND PHRAGMITES

Ontario’s Invading Species Awareness Program offers advice on what to do if you find phragmites on your property:

• Learn how to identify invasive phragmites and how to avoid accidentally spreading it through its root fragments and seeds. This is especially important if you are planning to do work in an area that contains invasive phragmites.

• Learn how to effectively manage phragmites on your property. The guide “Best Management Practices for Phragmites” describes the most effective and environmentally safe control practices for this species.

• Never buy or plant invasive phragmites. It is against the law to buy, sell, trade or purposely grow it.

• Stay on designated trails and keep pets on a leash. Leaving trails or entering areas containing invasive phragmites can encourage the spread of this plant.

• When leaving an area containing invasive phragmites, inspect, clean and remove mud, seeds and plant parts from clothing, pets and horses, vehicles, including bicycles and ATVs, and such equipment such as mowers and tools.

• Do not compost invasive phragmites in your backyard composter. Both seeds and rhizomes (horizontal plant stems growing underground) can survive and grow in compost, unless high enough temperatures are reached to kill the reproducing structures.

• If you have any information about the illegal importing, distribution or sale of invasive phragmites, report it immediately to the MNRF TIPS line at 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667) toll-free anytime. You can also call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477). If you’ve seen invasive Phragmites or other invasive species in the wild, contact the toll-free Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711, or go to the EDDMapS Ontario website to report a sighting.