Help control phragmites on Manitoulin

Judith Jones, right, spreads the word on the dangers of phragmites to landowners and to the environment during Phragmites Week.

Learn about the invasive plant during Phragmites Week

M’CHIGEENG—July 16 to 21 is Manitoulin Phragmites Week. Manitoulin Phragmites Project Coordinator Judith Jones set up at FreshMart in M’Chigeeng on Sunday to spread the word. In previous years, no one has shown up on this day but this year, several have stopped by to learn about phragmites and occasionally a shopper stops by her vehicle and takes a pamphlet. Ms. Jones has several plants there, to help with identification, and tools that are used to control its spread.

Ms. Jones wants people to be able to identify this aggressive invasive plant so if they’re out in their boat or driving around on their ATVs, they can recognize it and drive around. Phragmites is mostly moved around by vehicles, with only a small amount moved around by seed or by animals. It’s spread by pieces of plant, because any little part of the plant can reproduce. “What happens,” she explains, “is someone drives through these. They chop it up and it gets on their tires. The pieces stick to the wheels then the person drives down the ditch and it falls off and grows.”

Lots of boaters, she adds, go into the weeds and then have to stop and pull the pieces off the prop. “Don’t throw it back in the lake!” she said emphatically. “Throw it in your boat and that way, you can dispose of it on dry ground.” The cut pieces dry easily and won’t regrow.

Phragmites has one central stalk with leaves that come off it, similar to a corn stalk. A cattail, she demonstrates, is more like a green onion, with leaves coming off the base. Phragmites blooms from the middle-to-end of August through September, so anything on the road right now that’s already bloomed is not phragmites. “There’s a lot of tall grass in the world,” Ms. Jones said. “Fortunately, it’s not all phragmites. We’re seeing a lot of this on the road right now, big tall stands of it. It’s not phragmites. (‘This’ is called canary reed grass. It’s phragmites number one lookalike). We don’t have to worry about it.”

When they’re both small, however, the plants are hard to tell apart by sight. When they get older, reed canary grass is much smaller and more delicate than phragmites, and it’s soft. In the fall when it dies, it falls over. Phragmites has a hard stalk and in the fall when it dies, it remains standing. Phragmites is also a larger plant. The phragmites sample Ms. Jones has with her has a red stem, but the plant does not always have a red stem. There are two species of phragmites, she explained. One has a red stem and one doesn’t. One has a shiny stem and the other has a rough stem. The European strain is the more aggressive one although sometimes the American strain acts invasively, even though it is considered to be an indigenous species. When American phragmites is in its natural habitat, it behaves as a native species in balance with the rest of its ecosystem.

Ms. Jones walks the group across the highway to where a patch of American phragmites is acting in an invasive manner. “I know this is the American strain because we had it genotyped in 2019,” she said. “So I know this is the American strain acting in an invasive manner. There are some times when we manage this one but sometimes we don’t.”

What happens is this plant is so aggressive and grows so thickly, it basically wipes out the other vegetation around it. “What the implications are,” Ms. Jones said, “are it will cover up all your shallow water where the fish spawn. It will cover up beaches and turtle nests. It’ll cover up beaches that you like to walk on and swim on. It will impact your own property values and aesthetics and enjoyment of the shoreline, and also infrastructure, because it can block the ditch flow. If it’s in a sewage lagoon you can have a really costly problem.”

That’s why phragmites has been called Canada’s most invasive aggressive plant, because it is so aggressive and because of the implications for economics and for human usage of things, Ms. Jones added. She talked about some techniques for helping to get rid of it. “Number one, if you cut all the stems in water, you reach down all the way to the bottom and cut it as far down as you can go,” she said. “You can drown the roots because the roots don’t get any air. You have to cut the dead ones too because they’re like straws.”

They get about a 75 precent reduction in one year which is pretty good, she noted. “It’s not a one shot deal. None of these techniques are. You have to come back the next year and get that other 25 percent and then the following year if you’ve got a few stems, no big deal right? That’s the number one thing we like to do is cut in water and drown.” If you’re a landowner just starting out, she suggested you do a little bit at a time, even just to contain it. “That’s a very valid thing to do, just cut around the outside of it so it doesn’t keep marching out. “

She recommends pruners for cutting the plant stalk underwater, or a raspberry cane cutter, which can be easier on your back. On dry land, she demonstrated a spading technique. It doesn’t cut out all the rhizomes but helps to slow the spread. “It’s really hard to kill it because it has an extensive root system and you could never dig it all out because it would be useless.”

It’s a slower technique than drowning, Ms. Jones said, but over a few years it knocks the density back for sure. The size of the patch may stay the same but it will become less and less dense over time. “It’s something you would do as a control technique as opposed to a quick eradication. But on your own property it’s a long term project but it works

The third thing they use is herbicide. It’s a weapon of last resort, she said. “We only do it in dry situations. We never do it in water. Nobody should use herbicide over water. We use it when it comes down to a question of natural habitat or use of herbicide. Either we’re going to save that natural habitat or we’re not going to use a herbicide and it’s going to grow.”

The stand Ms. Jones shows the group is an example of a stand that should be sprayed. It’s on dry land and there’s a big wetland behind it. “I wouldn’t want to see that entire wetland turn into a phragmites patch,” she said.” Also, it’s better now that they’ve developed this trail but before machines were just driving through it. We were cutting it back just to keep them from spreading it. It’s dense enough now that if I sprayed it, I wouldn’t have a lot of ground kill underneath. Whatever’s under there would probably survive. When they’re sparse there’s a little bit more by-kill when you spray. This one is really dense, one of the 110 stems per square metre. When this is in shallow water you can imagine, this is the end of the fish habitat.”

Ms. Jones was also hosting two phragmites removal work bees, at Julia Bay on Monday and further west, at Pristine Point on Tuesday. The Manitoulin Phragmites Project is on Facebook and has a YouTube channel or you can contact them at manitoulinphrag@yahoo.com