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Why This Invasive Plant Has A Shot At Some Redemption

Fall colors in the marshes around Plum Island Sound. Photo by Robin Lubbock for WBUR

Fall colors in the marshes around Plum Island Sound. Photo by Robin Lubbock for WBUR

Robert Buchsbaum walks into a salt marsh on Boston’s North Shore. Around him towers a stand of bushy-topped Phragmites australis, an invasive plant commonly known as the common reed. Or, as some call it: the all-too-common reed.

Buchsbaum kneels in the mud and begins to dig. Phragmites is an enemy that this regional scientist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society knows all too well.

The plant, which typically grows about 13 feet high, looms over native marsh plants, blocking out their sunlight. When Phragmites sheds its lower leaves, or dies, it creates a thick layer of wrack that keeps native plants from germinating. Its stalks clog waterways, thwarting fish travel. Salt marsh sparrows avoid them. The roots, or rhizomes, secrete a chemical that prevents other plants from growing, and they grow so deep they are nearly impossible to pull out.

That’s what Buchsbaum is kneeling in the mud at Rough Meadows Wildlife Sanctuary to demonstrate. He grabs a Phragmites root with both hands, leans back and pulls with all his might. Nothing. Phragmites isn’t going anywhere.

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