Fighting the phrag (even in winter!)

Phragmites plume in snow
Phragmites plume in winter. Photo courtesy of Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

High above the piling snow, the plume-like seed heads of Phragmites australis wave in the winter winds. These fluffy tufts are a beautiful but unwelcome sight on the landscape. That’s because Phragmites australis, or common reed, is a harmful invasive plant that can destroy our wetlands and increase fire risk. This deep-rooted grass is a giant that grows from six to fifteen feet tall, which means it can also block those beautiful waterfront views that we all love. Not to mention, it can lower property values, particularly on waterfront homes.

While phragmites can be a bad sign, its high visibility in the winter months can be helpful to those trying to manage it, like the Barry-Calhoun-Kalamazoo Cooperative Invasive Species Management Area (Try saying that ten times fast! For your tongue’s sake we’ll stick with calling it the BCK-CISMA.) This group is on the lookout to find and manage invasive species like phragmites before they get out of hand.

Treatment of well-established populations can take years and the BCK-CISMA’s proactive approach could end up saving millions of dollars. You need not go far to see how much money phragmites control can cost once the plant really spreads- just look at the Saginaw Bay region. Partners have been working there for over a decade to manage hundreds of acres of phragmites, with total project costs well over a quarter of a million dollars. Barry County is lucky to have mostly small pocket populations that could potentially be knocked out before we get to that sort of situation, but only if we act now.

Phragmites stand in winter
Phragmites stands can be easier to spot in the winter, when other vegetation has died back and been matted down. Photo courtesy of Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,

We can’t do it alone, though! We need folks like you to keep an eye out for phragmites and report it. We do not obligate landowners to manage the phragmites, but if we know where it is we can provide education and management options if the landowner wants. If you would like to help in the hunt to find invasive phragmites, here is what you will look for in the winter: a 6′-15′ tall, pale, stiff, dried grass sticking up far above cattails and other plants (in the summer it is a dark bluish green). Its feathery inflorescences (fluffy flower-like seedheads) are quite large and turn dark purple in late summer/early fall and then fade to a pale tan/beige color by winter. Usually other plants will not be growing underneath invasive phragmites, but that is not always the case.

To report phragmites sightings, you can call the Conservation District at (269) 908-4135 or email us at If you know a group that would like to learn more, we can also provide free workshops and educational materials.

Phragmites infestation
If left untreated, phragmites can totally take over an area, choking out native plants. Photo courtesy of Leslie J. Mehrhoff, University of Connecticut,