Autumn Phragmites (oil on canvas 12 x 16 in.) Sold

10 October finds me sitting to paint Phragmites reeds on the shoulder of County Road 20, at a wetland which is the headwaters of the South Nation River's north branch a kilometre east of East Oxford, Grenville County, Ontario, 

This is the closest the South Nation River drainage comes to home, and we've been measuring the height of the tallest stem that's within a few metres of the road here, ever since we took a 4-metre sheaf of it to display like a trophy in the entryway of the Eastern Ontario Biodiversity Museum in 1999.

Fred takes advantage of being tied down to my painting site today, by finally having the opportunity to capture the geographic coordinates of the perimeter of this stand. Bob Woolham's recollection is that it has been here at least since the early 1980's, which agrees with ours, though in those days we foolishly didn't pay adequate attention to this invasive species.

We at first thought that should paint the interior of the stand, but this was very dense with stems (perhaps unusually dense), so I  settled on its exterior, viewed against the forest of Large-toothed Aspen and Red Maple that flanks it to the east.

I chose an 12 x 16 inch canvas because I wanted to enjoy the long tapered brush strokes of the leaves and the long subtly arching linear strokes of the stems. With so much space to move in, I actually feel as if I'm flying! As the canvas fills in with breeze tossed reeds and fluttering aspen leaves, the painting appears to be dancing!  

Fred returns from his circumperambulation with accounts of hearing Gray Treefrogs and Spring Peepers, and at the stream, discovering a Mud Minnow and some Sticklebacks - and a Green Frog that hopped three metres after the beetles he'd tossed from his net. He found a second stand of Phragmites, not flowering, behind this one in the edge of the woods. Too soon I have to pack up, but look forward to finishing this from my photos.


  1. I love the windblown feeling in this painting, Aleta.

    Kay, Alberta, Canada
    An Unfittie’s Guide to Adventurous Travel

  2. I feel privileged to have painted it!

  3. This is Phragmites australis subspecies australis... the Common Reed of Europe, the plume-headed grass that has grown up on the roadsides of 400-series Ontario highways since the 1970s, spreading into Lake Ontario marshes, and along such roads as the Dwyer Hill Road, Co Rd 20 west of Hwy 416, and Old Hwy 16 (Co Rd 44) north of Kemptville. Like many other invasive plants, the frightening thing about invasive Phragmites is the way it spreads from places disturbed by people into a wide diversity of habitats: wet and dry roadsides, disturbance-opened forests, and oldfields as well as its traditional wetlands habitat. If it fills all the habitats it’s currently spreading into, many native species will be displaced.

    This invader arrived on the United States mid-Atlantic coast by 1910. By 1960 it had spread inland to New York, along the southern shores of Lake Ontario, and to Pennsylvania and Ohio, along Lake Erie’s shoreline, and then into southern Michigan and then southwestern Ontario. The first introduced specimen collected in eastern Ontario was taken in 1976 near Manotick, where it was growing along Highway 16. It likely arrived as part of a widespread invasion along highways from the southwest.

    It's thought that Phragmites spreads by germination of the tiny seeds in mineral soil disturbed by earth-moving or along streams or beaches, or more usually, from sprouting fragments of rhizomes or stolons carried by currents or equipment. Once it's established it spreads steadily by underground rhizomes – the stand on Cooper Road in Limerick Forest went from 10 m in 1993, to 50 m in 2005, and to 68 m in 2010 – or may leap across the ground with surface stolons.

    These tall stands profoundly modify their environment. Nothing else grows in the dense stands, the fallen leaves blanket the soil, the matted growth fills small streams and channels, and the roots extract more nitrogen from the soil than anyone has been able to explain. The wind blowing across broken stems pumps air into the huge twisted rhizomes, to oxygenate and change pH and nutrient availability deep into the ground. When Phragmites spreads into acidic or other hostile soils, the new plants are subsidized through rhizomes until they have neutralized the acidity, or otherwise ameliorated conditions, so that they can grow on their own.

    Fossils show that Phragmites has been in North America for thousands of years, The first records of the species for eastern Ontario date back to 1860, when a specimen was taken from the Mississippi River at Carleton Place. The species was recorded north of Prescott along the Ottawa and Prescott railway, and at the bridge where the railway crossed the Rideau River in Ottawa. By 1888 it was known to be abundant in marshes along the Bay of Quinte, at Belleville, and at Kingston. The species was considered relatively uncommon in eastern Ontario, inland from Lake Ontario, from 1940-1975....

  4. As Phragmites was spreading across wetlands throughout the United States in the 1990s, Kristin Saltonstall analysed the chloroplast DNA of living plants and herbarium specimens, finding that the invading stands were genetically related to European Reeds. Recently, the natives have been described as Phragmites australis subspecies americanus, and since only a few hybrids have been identified, they may, in fact, be separate species that rarely interbreed. Once the DNA had shown the way, visible characteristics of the two kinds in southern Ontario have been found: stands of natives are less dense, with other plants growing among them. Natives have narrower rhizomes (<15mm diameter) and a red or purplish colour on the upper portions of the sections (internodes) of their lower stems, which are smooth or even polished, in contrast to the rough texture and yellowish colour of the lower stems of the invaders. The seedhead parts, especially the “lower glume” of the natives are larger (>4.2 mm) than those of the invaders.

    Kristin Saltonstall worked at Yale, and she wasn't able to find any surviving native Phragmites in Connecticut, where the coasts are blanketed with the invaders. In southern Ontario natives still survive, and while they've mostly lost the roadsides to the invaders, we've found natives in each of the headwater wetlands between the Rideau and the St Lawrence. In northern Ontario there are stands of natives, rather than invasives, along the highways, and no one knows how far the invaders will spread.

    There's little enough one can do to conserve the natives in landscapes dominated by the invaders, and the shining red stems of decorative natives in a roadside ditch are unlikely to soon replace Bluebird houses as the public sign of a conservationist household. But we've known of the difference between the kinds for less than a decade, the natives are decorative, their open stands do benefit wildlife, they'd be just as useful as the invaders in waste treatment lagoons, and dispersal is the limiting step in their spread. Disturbed soil and roadsides can be patrolled for invasive shoots, and newly constructed ponds and wetlands can be inoculated with native Phragmites to pre-empt invaders, so maybe a modest investment in recognition and favouritism could sustain the natives into the future.

    For more on identification, see
    from Cornell University, and Paul Catling of Agriculture
    and AgriFood Canada, reports on identification and the Canadian situation in Botanical Electronic News, most
    recently at

  5. ...and finally, the Cattails that the Phragmites are displacing are half-alien themselves, hybrids between the native Broadleaf Typha latifolia and the European Narrowleaf Typha angustifolia, which make up much of the Cattail biomass in eastern Ontario.

  6. I remember unbroken stands of dense cattails carpeting the Rondeau Shores, as pure a monoculture as any putting green. Today, I see that monopoly broken by stands of emergent Phragmites, where point source nutrients flow from streams or where there has been mechanical disturbance from ATVs.


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