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The Common Reed, Phragmites
with Tim Simmons

Viewers who may never have the opportunity to visit the Great Marsh will quickly understand from Tim's clear and precise explanations why these 14 square miles of marsh lands are so important to all of us and how Phragmites has evolved into a "Super Species" capable of damaging ecosystems like the Great Marsh where ever it allowed to expand.

Session Date Rough Edit Transcript Tight Edit Youtube Posting
10/1/13 10/3/13 10/10/13 1/8/14 1/17/14

Tim Simmons talking about the Great Marsh and the invasive reed, Phragmites
Tim Simmons explains how Phragmites australis has evolved into a "Super Species"
capable of destroying marsh areas with monoculture stands.

My name is Tim Simmons. I’m a restoration ecologist with the Massachusetts Natural Heritage and Endangered Species program – the Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. We’re at Pine Island crick in Newbury, Massachusetts, and the background is the Great Marsh – the largest salt marsh in New England. More people than not, that I’m acquainted with, have never been out on the Marsh. They have no idea that there’s this wilderness system in their backyard with all these riches we’ve described, and I’d like to change that to the extent possible. But whether or not they ever get out on the Marsh, they need to understand that the marsh is preventing the inland areas from catastrophic flooding. It serves as a buffer in its natural state to storms that would be just devastating to this area if the marsh was not there or if the marsh fails in any way. It’s incalculable the values that it’s bringing to our lives, whether you ever see it or not.

The salt marsh system is one of the richest ecosystems that we have. It supports microscopic plants and animals that in turn serve the needs of the larger ones and it’s a very dynamic system – we get a different tide almost every different day – distributing these nutrients and these organisms to these different places and some comes in on the tide and some goes out on the tide and a lot of stuff just gets left behind on a slowly falling tide. So, things are constantly moving, both in the water column and in the surface. And this system is growing – it’s our newest form of land because of those dynamics. This is actually growing out from the land base and extending itself, because without Phragmites, it too can alter its own system to benefit the native plants and animals and that’s what we’re after here.

I tend to think of Phragmites as both a disease and a symptom of disease. It alters the system it invades and is remarkably good at, through transpiration while photosynthesizing, moving water up through the stems and into the air column. So, we’ve seen water go down when the sun comes up and come back up when the sun goes down, but over time, it actually changes the hydrology enough to benefit itself over the other plants. And there’s also some evidence that it secretes a toxic chemical to other plants that also keeps them from growing. So, it’s got more strategies than we do, and we need to take advantage of the biology of that plant to the extent possible to reverse those trends and alterations it makes to the environment itself.

What does the marsh do? What does it support? All the birdlife that’s out there – it’s a very rich system that gets impoverished when Phragmites moves in because the animals that were accustom to and evolved with a healthy marsh are suddenly faced with something that is completely foreign to their evolutionary biology. And, some animals do adapt to it and some animals do use it. It often takes over our cattail marshes – our native cattail marshes – which are important to a whole plethora of different nesting birds. Those birds, will not nest in the Phragmites.
It has the capacity to grow in standing water, not just in the salt marsh and the saturated areas, it’ll grow out in the standing water and it will change the cover, and therefore the base of the food chain will actually change and various fin fish that are important to the larger fish that we depend on are deprived of the conditions they need to thrive. It will change even the circulation patterns, so for fish that are accustom to feeding in a certain circulation time are deprived of that too.

They probably came in as ballast in the 1600’s and 1700’s. It was used to pad cargo and it’s from various places in Europe, Africa, Asia, and it spread from all the ports in all directions. It spreads by seed, it spreads by rhizome, it spreads by broken stems and it spreads by wind because it has millions of fertile seeds that are very light.

Our early records, I’m not sure, before the 1950’s, before tropical storms, but after those we very much started to see a big increase. We certainly boosted its capacity by altering, especially physically, it does follow the footprint of physical disturbances, and then once its established it’s an opportunist and it’ll go just about anywhere, but the ditches we put in the marsh didn’t help. Some of the road constructions we’ve done didn’t help – not only did they provide a disturbance, but they provided a corridor for those wind-blown seeds to just be dispersed right down those roads, and we see that in the interior US and interior Massachusetts too.
Seed viability is a curious feature; we were testing seed viability in various stands in Massachusetts and they were coming back as 95% infertile. Now we see seeds that are almost 100% fertile, and what’s happening, is this is a wind-pollinated plant and we’ve had this stock that’s been delivered from all these various different places and the wind is blowing them together and making this super Phragmites that has more viable, but it’s also hardier in a lot of these harsher conditions. So, the longer a stand has been there, the tougher it’s going to be and the more genetically diverse it’s going to be and the more viability its seeds will have.

Other coalitions in the country that are catching on that it’s going to take a team effort to do this, but their also finding that they have a pretty tough plant that responds well to disturbances – that’s what it likes to begin with so if you cut it, it’s going to say ‘Thank you’ if you don’t spray following that cut.

01:08:56:13 The best treatments we’ve come up with are the use herbicides, glyphosate in particular, but others as well. They’re amino acid inhibitors and they work quite well if you apply at the right time of year and at the appropriate dilution. We’ve had great success in other places, but I don’t know of any where that has this much diffuse patches in all these different spots. So, it’s hard to get to here and it’s very difficult to do it all by hand tools or even aquatic based equipment.

Our ‘marsh master’ here is about the only piece of equipment that can get us into those places. It’s very difficult for people on foot, as you guys know. The marshes can be very unforgiving to the pedestrian (he smiled!). So we use that and it enables us to more efficiently move from patch to patch.

We treat in the fall. And, we watch very carefully to see what kind of response we get and usually its 85-90% kill, but there’s a few spindly shoots that come up from the living rhizome that did not get treated. So, we have to go back and hand-treat those, just so that they don’t get reestablished. But, you can have a remarkable recovery in a single season.

We’ve looked, and other people have looked, and everywhere we’ve been doing this, because it was controversial in the beginning – what we were doing to the marsh, were we going to alter it permanently while we restore it – but we’ve seen absolutely no non-target impacts. And, if there are, they’re minor – over-spray of a native plant nearby – they all come back. So what we really see, the most dramatic effects we see, are the return of the native from the seed bank that’s been repressed for many many years now.

Gerardia plants – very showy, shows up in the fall – has responded remarkably well to these treatments. We track it barely in Massachusetts, but it’s actually protected in Maine and New Hampshire because they have less salt marsh and because they have less healthy salt marsh. It’s nice to see those things come back very readily.

It’s important that you’ve brought this coalition together because it’s going to take resources from everybody and commitment from everyone – all those organizations, all those agencies need to understand that there’s a serious problem, that there’s an infection of this marsh that is not going to go away without active management, so we need to take appropriate active management and treat it. Now.

There some compelling evidence that some of the alterations that have occurred over the past four decades on the marsh are beginning to impinge on its capacity to rebound from disturbance. And the system that’s disturbed everyday has a lot of resilience built into it, but we really don’t know what’s going to happen to this marsh as climate change is occurring and how it can keep up with changes that we’re beginning to believe are more rapid than anything it’s ever seen before. So, it’s important to address that issue simultaneously and protecting areas where this marsh wants to grow into. Many of those are built, but we’ve actually targeted areas that aren’t built where we think the marsh is going to migrate as sea level changes, and that’s going to be important to allow it’s resilience to display itself.
Again, this is Tim Simmons with the Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program and I want to thank you for taking the time to educate yourselves via this medium and please do support this work in your communities.

Stand of sprayed Phragmites
A stand of Phragmites about 2 weeks after being sprayed.

Danger in the Reeds is being produced by Staddles Productions
with the help of Dr Gregg Moore, Peter Phippen and Geoff Walker.

We would all like to express our graditude to our many Kickstarter supporters
without whom this project would not be possible.

Rick Hydren  ~ Office: 978-948-3346, Cell: 508-954-1298
PO Box 715, Rowley MA 01969


Portrait Photography ~ Real Estate Photography