Too many years ago, I spent some pleasant days on Long Island with one of this country's finest naturalists, John Elliott. John pointed out all kinds of things to me as we explored the oceanfront and the shoreside marshlands along Jones Beach near his home in Seaford.
I recall John showing me acrobatic skimmers dragging their lower bills through the water, my first-ever seaside sparrow skulking atop a sand dune, a clapper rail tiptoeing suspiciously across a mud flat, and a pair of beautiful harlequin ducks paddling unconcernedly just below where we stood on a breakwater.
But John also taught me to recognize a remarkably tall -- at 6 to 13 feet -- and straight-stemmed grass that shared the marsh edges with cattails. Phragmites, John called it, and that is the name I have always associated with it. As it happens, that is the Latin name for its genus; its full scientific name is Phragmites australis. Its common name, I learned much later, is common reed, and it is also known as common reedgrass, giant reed or beachgrass.
When I first came to Buffalo 40 years ago, I was occasionally surprised to find a patch of phragmites here. It seemed strange to discover these remnant populations of a grass that seemed so far from what I thought of as its normal seafront habitat.
Now, however, the story is quite different. Phragmites has become very common here, and -- like that other invading pest, purple loosestrife -- it is displacing cattails in our marshes and establishing itself in roadside ditches.
Take a ride almost anywhere around Western New York and you'll see masses of these tall round-stemmed grasses topped at this season by thick feathered plumes. They are unmistakable, and once you recognize them you will see that they are now one of our most common weeds.
In fact, at least one botanist considers this species to have the widest distribution of any flowering plant. It is found on every continent except Antarctica. We cannot call phragmites an alien in North America, for it has been here for at least 40,000 years.
But others have also noted its sudden range expansion. For example, Yale University researcher Kristin Saltonstall tells us, "Over the last 150 years its distribution and relative abundance has increased dramatically, particularly along the Atlantic coast. Botanical records from the 1800s typically describe Phragmites as being rare or not common. . . . By the early 1900s, the species was considered more common and spreading. Today, it exists in all of the mainland United States as well as throughout southern Canada and is considered an indicator of wetland disturbance. It is also expanding into undisturbed sites, particularly in inland areas."
Why this sudden expansion? By using modern DNA techniques, Saltonstall has addressed this question. Her report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year tells us that the strain of phragmites that has lived here so long has only maintained its range, while another strain of this same plant has been the one spreading so rapidly.
This newer strain appears not to be a mutant form of the older; rather, it is almost certainly a foreign strain. In fact, she tells us that it "was documented growing in places where ships' ballast was dumped or used to fill marsh lands being converted to railroad and shipping hubs."
Although this invader represents serious problems, it is not nearly as bad as loosestrife. Another researcher, Shawn Meyer of the University of Western Ontario, found a number of bird species, including least bitterns, living in masses of phragmites on Long Point.