Submitted by: Nathanael Pilla, Project Coordinator, Save the Dunes
Do you ever pull up to a stop sign and can’t see what is coming because there is a very tall, obnoxious grass in the way? Not a three to five foot grass, but one that is ten feet tall or more? This grass is more than likely something called phragmites (pronounced frag-might-eeeeeees)– an invasive species or bad plant to the Indiana dunes. The name comes from the Latin name, Phragmites australis. Australis means “from the south.” The word Phragmites comes from two Greek words, phragma and –ites, which mean “hedge” and “resembling.”
In a region known for its outstanding plant diversity, its complex natural systems, and being referred to as one of the most precious outdoor natural laboratories in the county, phragmites pose a major threat.
This plant shades out other plants and grows thick underground stems that also force out its neighbors. Often, it completely devours our wetlands and ditches. Usually if you see phragmites, it is the only plant you see in an area as it has completely taken over. It’s easy to see why phragmites is named as one of the region’s worst bullies.
While there is a native phragmites to northwest Indiana; the bully phragmites is a genotype that is native to Europe. If one were to try and tell the two apart, you might notice the bright red stems of the native and its green leaves versus the dull tan color of the non-native with bluish green leaves. Sadly, if you think you’re seeing phragmites in our region, it is likely the non-native, aggressive type.
But why is this plant so bad? Other than affecting other plants that make this region so special, it also affects habitat for the animals we love, including birds. If you love birds, then you shouldn’t love non-native phragmites. Marsh nesting birds don’t dig phragmites because they need a certain type of high-quality nesting material that this big grass doesn’t give. These birds need a large wet meadow with a variety of sizes and food sources which phragmites just don’t provide. If there is a choice, birds choose phragmites-free wetlands most of the time. Sadly, phragmites-free wetlands seem to be coming rarer by the day.
So remember… just because something looks cool doesn’t mean that it is cool! In fact, it’s okay if you hate non-native phragmites. We hate them, too! If we keep our plants northwest Indiana local, we will not only be helping the birds, but a whole plethora of life.
If you have phragmites in your ditch and are not sure what to do, please let us know! Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Phragmites fact: Red-winged blackbirds are one of the few birds that don’t mind hanging out in phragmites stands. Not surprisingly, the red-winged blackbird is the most common bird in the United States.
The Red Winged Blackbird is one of the only birds to hang out in phragmites. Photo by Steve Sass
Save the Dunes is a nonprofit with a mission to preserve, protect and restore the Indiana dunes and all natural resources in Northwest Indiana’s Lake Michigan Watershed for an enhanced quality of life. We like combatting invasive species and are constantly working to educate others on how to make smart decisions at home using native species rather than invasive bullies. Be sure to check out indunesguide.com to learn more about landscaping with native species. If you like our cause, be sure to become a member or donate at savedunes.org/donate.
Nathanael resides in the town of Porter. He works as the project coordinator and botanist for Save the Dunes while serving on the board of the Indiana Plant and Wildflower Society North Chapter. When he is not botanizing, Nathanael spends his pastime writing and singing ridiculous songs.