Common Name: Common Reed

Scientific Name: Phragmites australis
Family: Poaceae (the True Grass family… the 5th largest plant family with over 10,000 species!)

Subspecies:

  • Phragmites australis subspecies americanus – the North American variety
  • Phragmites australis subspecies australis – the Eurasian variety
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In it’s natural habitat, Common Reed will spread along a shoreline.

Description:
The Common Reed is found in wetlands around the world from temperate to tropical climates. This perennial grass is likely the most useful species I have documented to date. Most of the plant is edible in one way or another, it can be used to make many things from housing to fences to baskets to paper, and it is a wonderful plant for wildlife (food, shelter, habitat, etc.). Looking forward, I foresee three ways I plan on using this plant. First, it will be part of  my home’s gray water system. Reeds are used in small and very large scale bioremediation systems… they filter out impurities from water flowing through their root systems. Second, reeds are a wonderful way to capture nutrients before leaving a property. A small wetland can be constructed at the lowest end of a property where water typically exits the land. A significant amount of the nutrient that would have flowed off the property in the water can now be captured in the roots and converted into energy to grow the plant. When the reed bed gets overgrown, we can harvest a large quantity of the reeds from the wetlands and transfer that captured nutrient (in the form of cut reeds) back into our system… as compost, mulch, or animal feed (my Third reason). There are few plants that perform so many duties, and we would be wise to consider using this plant in our Permaculture Designs. Keep in mind that this plant can easily spread. A rhizome barrier is recommended to keep it in bounds.

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Phragmites australis, Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885

History:
Common Reeds are found in temperate climates, as well as sub-topical and tropical climates, around the world. Botanists have not decided if there are multiple subspecies or actual distinct species of the Phragmites genus.

Trivia:

  • Reed Beds are extensive stands of reeds that can grow to a full square kilometer.
  • The subspecies australis can be invasive in climates where it is not native (e.g. North America – it is found in all the U.S. states but Alaska). It easily outcompetes native species. When discussing “invasive” species, my philosophy is that the “invasive” species is only invasive because we have destroyed the natural ecosystem. Most often, the ecosystem is so badly damaged that it would take hundreds of years, literally and at least, to repair if left to the native species. Sometimes, the damage is too great that the native species will never rehabilitate the land. However, I do understand that certain non-native species can wreak havoc on ecosystems that are not particularly damaged. We need to be very careful how, and if, we use those plants. In this case, using the native common reed to North America (subspecies americanus) would be a good place to start, but if you want to build a rhizome barrier and there are already non-native reeds in your area, then utilizing the significantly faster growing australis subspecies may be a viable option. This invasive has already spread into 49/50 U.S. states, so it is unlikely we will be “introducing” it to an area. However, I strongly recommend a rhizome barrier if using the non-native plant.
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A Reed Bed as part of a water treatment (or home graywater) system.

USING THIS PLANT

Primary Uses:

  • Edible Roots – Raw or cooked – best when young. Dried and ground – used as a porridge.
  • Edible Shoots – Use when young, before the leaves appear. Bamboo shoot substitute – I have to try this. I love bamboo shoots. Some reports state that Cattails have better flavor than Common Reeds as bamboo shoot substitutes.
  • Edible Leaves – Harvest when young and unfolded. Reported to be dried, ground, and added to other flours.
  • Edible Stems – When dried, a powder forms within the stems. This can be extracted, moistened and roasted like marshmallows.
  • Edible Seeds – Raw or cooked – ground into flour
  • Sugar Plant – A sugar is extracted from stalks and stems. It may be eaten raw. It can be extracted through boiling the stems in water, then boiling off the water. I imagine the plant could be macerated similar to Sorghum.
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Reed-thatched roof in Germany.

Secondary Uses:

  • Wildlife food plant, especially birds
  • Livestock feed plant.
  • Insect nesting sites, especially Mason Bees
  • Shelter plant for small mammals, birds, and aquatic species
  • Ornamental aquatic and pond/lake plant.
  • Nutrient Sink – Reed Beds can accumulate a lot of nutrients (see information above) which can be transferred to other locations.
  • Bioremediation/Phytoremediation Plant – Reed Beds can be used as part of a biological filtration system to clean and purify contaminated water, often as part of a constructed wetland. This can be part of a home gray water system as well.
  • Biomass Plant – very fast growing plant can produce large amounts of organic matter in a short time.
  • Green Manure Plant.
  • Alcohol Plant – Biofuel can be made by fermenting the sugars into alcohol. This has also been used for fertilizers. It should also be able to produce drinking alcohol as well.
  • Structures – stems used for building dwellings and the plant can be mixed with mud to make a plaster for walls
  • Fiber Plant – used for weaving mats and baskets; also used for insulation, upholstery filler, string, rope, nets, etc.
  • Stems used for fencing, lattices, stakes, etc.
  • Flower Heads used as brooms.
  • Thatching Plant – a reed-thatched roof can last for over 100 years.
  • Erosion Control Plant – the vigorous roots bind the soil and hold it together

Yield: Variable, depends on how it is to be used.
Harvesting: Anytime.
Storage: If using for food, then it should be used within a few days. Flour made from this plant should likely be usable for many months if kept dry.

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Common Reeds used as a filtration system and wildlife habitat in the UK.

DESIGNING WITH THIS PLANT

USDA Hardiness Zone: 5
AHS Heat Zone: no reliable information, but this plant is found in the tropics, so it is likely very heat tolerant. Using a locally adapted plant would be best.
Chill Requirement: Unlikely, but no reliable information is available on this subject

Plant Type: Perennial Grass, Wetland Plant
Leaf Type: Grass
Forest Garden Use: Aquatic or Wetland Layer
Cultivars/Varieties: None

Pollination: Self-fertile (pollinated by wind)
Flowering: Late Summer

Life Span: No good information available, but the Common Reed may take 5-10 years to reach mature height. Also, this plant freely spreads through rhizomes and stolons. As one plant is starting to decline, a new plant will be established to take the original plant’s place in the garden and in production.

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The Common Reed’s extensive root system.

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Common Reeds can provide a lot of biomass.

PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THIS PLANT

Size: 6.5-13 feet (2-4 meters) tall and 9 feet (3 m) wide
Roots: Fibrous with Rhizomes (underground stems that send out roots and shoots) and Stolons (above ground stems that can sprout a new plant).
Growth Rate: Fast

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Common Reed can be a beautiful plant.

GROWING CONDITIONS FOR THIS PLANT

Light: Full to partial sun.
Shade: Tolerates light shade
Moisture: Prefers wet soils and can grow in marshes, bogs, swamps, and standing water; can tolerate moderately salty water (brackish waters).
pH: 4.8-8.2 (tolerates a wide range of soil conditions)

Special Considerations for Growing:
Consider rhizome barriers if using the australis subspecies.

Propagation:
By seed – quick germination. Can be propagated by division of the roots in early Spring to early Summer – any part of the root with a growth bud will develop a new plant.

Maintenance: 
Will need to be cut back or grazed to keep growth in check. Almost no pests or diseases.

Concerns:
Spreading – this is a very vigorous and potentially “invasive” plant, specifically the australis subspecies. This can be kept in bounds with either a rhizome barrier, frequent harvesting or grazing.

 

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Photo References:

  • http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/ba/Illustration_Phragmites_australis0.jpg
  • http://www.florafinder.com/LargePhotos/D0/Phragmites_australis-AB14497C80.jpg
  • http://vitalsignsme.org/sites/default/files/applebrook_farm/sta72194.jpg
  • http://www.oregon.gov/ODA/PLANT/PublishingImages/lg/weed_phragntrodstnd_rcrawford.jpg
  • http://farm6.staticflickr.com/5005/5229902434_5f0c652af2_z.jpg
  • http://www.alliedbiological.com/images/spring2002_reed.jpg
  • http://delawareinvasives.net/yahoo_site_admin/assets/images/Phrag_rhizome.5893816_std.jpg
  • http://3.bp.blogspot.com/-xp64Utug3e4/Tl-Vjh5zLfI/AAAAAAAAAAY/JSKQDX1GES4/s1600/Reed%2BBed%2B1.JPG
  • http://info.cat.org.uk/sites/default/files/images/water-and-sewage/Vertical_Flow_RB.jpg
  • http://berlinplants.files.wordpress.com/2012/05/img_0464.jpg