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Stepping up the fight against Phragmites

By Miriam King, QMI Agency

A stand of Phragmites australis, along ShoreAcre Drive in Innisfil, towers over traffic, Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - just one of many stands that can be seen along roadsides and in ditches. The invasive species can grow to 3 metres in height, and crowds out native species. MIRIAM KING/BRADFORD TIMES/SUNMEDIA

A stand of Phragmites australis, along ShoreAcre Drive in Innisfil, towers over traffic, Wednesday, August 27, 2014 - just one of many stands that can be seen along roadsides and in ditches. The invasive species can grow to 3 metres in height, and crowds out native species. MIRIAM KING/BRADFORD TIMES/SUNMEDIA

Drive along Yonge St., from Newmarket north to Barrie, and its hard to miss the stands of Phragmites australis, in ditches and wetlands.

Phragmites, or European Common Reed, is the latest invasive species to have an impact on Ontario's economy, described by the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (MNRF) as "a growing environmental and economic threat to Ontario."

The plant grows up to 3 metres in height, its brown plumes blowing in the wind and dispersing thousands of seeds. Even more of a problem is the root system - capable of spreading tens of metres from a parent plant, and generating new growth all along each rhizome.

Phragmites also releases toxins from its roots, suppressing all other forms of plant life - allowing the Common Reed to form dense stands, low in biodiversity.

There is a native Phragmites species that is smaller and less aggressive, a normal part of wetland ecosystems; it is the invasive European Common Reed, in this area, spread largely by construction equipment and vehicles, that is a problem.

The MNRF was asked about the history of invasive Phragmites in Ontario, and how widespread the plant has become.

"The invasive biotype originated in Europe and was introduced in eastern North America decades ago," says MNR spokesperson, Jolanta Kowalski, Sr. Media Relations Officer. Since the 1940s, it has spread west and north, becoming a serious problem in Ontario over the past two decades.

"Phragmites is widespread in southern Ontario. Stands can be found along roads and ditches, wetlands, beaches, and marshes," Kowalski says. "Very large stands can be found in the coastal wetlands within the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River."

No one is sure how far north the European Common Reed has spread, but stands have been reported in Sudbury, and Fort Frances.

The Ministry has now produced "Invasive Phragmites-Best Management Practices" - a booklet available online (at https://www.ontario.ca/environment-and-energy/invasive-phragmites-best-management-practices) to guide municipalities, farmers and other property owners in controlling and preventing the spread of Phragmites. Recent research and pilot studies, conducted through partnerships with groups that include the South Simcoe Streams Network, have found that the best control is achieved through a combination of application of herbicides (away from standing water), cutting or rolling, and prescribed burning

Herbicides are largely banned in Ontario, under Regulation 63/09 of the Pesticides Act - but property owners can apply for permission to use herbicides on land to control invasive species like Phragmites; farmers are also exempt.

Kowalski was asked if there is funding available, to help fight the invader. "Provincial initiatives, such as the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry's Land Stewardship and Habitat Restoration Program, and the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change's Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund, have provided funding assistance to community groups and municipalities to control invasive plants such as Phragmites," she says.

The Great Lakes Guardian Community Fund can provide up to $25,000 for projects initiated by Not-for-profit organizations, First Nations and Métis communities. The Land Stewardship and Habitat Restoration Program provides up to $20,000 for approved projects, proposed by Aboriginal communities, Conservation Authorities, businesses, non-governmental-organizations, and Municipal governments. However, the applications have closed for 2014; there is no information on when the next intake will be.

The MNRF is attempting to raise public awareness of Phragmites - discouraging gardeners from planting potentially invasive grasses in their yards, and encouraging citizens to report Phragmites sightings through the Early Detection and Distribution Mapping System for Ontario (EDDMapS Ontario), a partnership with the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, that can be accessed at www.eddmaps.org/ontario

The provincial government will also be reintroducing its Invasive Species Act - which died on the order table when the election was called.

In the meantime, Phragmites continues to spread, its plumed seed heads waving in the wind.

Sidebar:

Cutting Phragmites near the base of the stem, without disturbing the roots, is an effective although labour- intensive way to control the European Common Reed. Cutting twice a year - in mid to late July, and again at the end of August - has resulted in thinning of established stands. However, if the seed heads have already formed, they must be bagged and removed before the plants are cut: each seed head can produce 2,000 viable seeds.

Do not compost the seed heads, but burn them.

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