The phragmites invasive chokes out everything

By MPP Toby Barrrett

Mention invasive species and it conjures up images of zebra mussels plastering the bottom of Lake Erie or lamprey clenched to the side of a trout.

But invasive species aren’t limited to water, and aren’t necessarily unattractive. In fact, the greatest land-borne threat to the province’s ecosystems used to find its way into decorative arrangements in people’s homes. Phragmites is the tall reed with feathery tops that is proliferating the province’s wetlands, ditches and just about anywhere water accumulates.

The war against phragmites is a tough one – the plant is resilient, spreading both from tubers underground and seeds above it. On my own farm, I saw a few stalks in my pond grow to cover 15 per cent of the area. It took me years to exterminate it, and it’s now making a comeback.

As Parliamentary Assistant to the Minister of Natural Resources when purple loosestrife was invading marshes, I saw the threat taken seriously and solutions sought to tame the invasion. I have yet to see a concerted effort provincially to take on this latest threat.

The Invasive Species Act may be the first provincial invasive species legislation, but it doesn’t do enough to deal with control. It mandates landowners to control invasive species, but doesn’t provide the tools to do the job.

The key to preventing further expansion of phragmites is early detection and rapid response; however these have not been priorities for the Ontario government. Roadside ditches, including provincial highways, harbour and provide a conduit for the invader.

Different groups have banded together to battle the scourge. St. Thomas aims to have the city free of phragmites in three years. Lambton Shores, north of Sarnia, has it 99 per cent under control.

The Phragmites Working Group is bringing together experts to educate the public and foster control. The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative produces an information package on control for municipalities and individual landowners ( It is also working with NASA to map the spread.

One of the controls advocated by the working group is legalizing the same chemical measures in Ontario that are available in the United States. One of the challenges is glysophate – which is legal for use on land provincially but not over water. In the United States, glysophate can be used over water and, in addition, imazapyr is also approved for phragmites control. Often eliminating a stand involves mowing, compressing, prescribed burn, hand-pulling or flooding, along with herbicide application. A request by the working group for an emergency registration of appropriate chemicals to control phragmites has yet to result in approval.

Years ago, I bought two goats for my kids – they ate just about anything, including my phragmites. Researchers in Maryland, found goats could reduce a phragmites stand by 80 per cent in a few weeks. In Europe, livestock grazing is used to knock back phragmites.

MPP Monte McNaughton has been pushing to have phragmites added to the Noxious Weed Act. That would mean municipal officials could instruct landowners to deal with phragmites on their property. Again – no support from government.

Phragmites needs to become a priority before it chokes out all other wetland plants and wildlife. All concerned need to band together to move it up on the government’s priority list.