Phragmites australis (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Carbohydrate / starch|
|Forage / feed|
Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin. ex Steud.
- Protologue: Nomencl. Bot., ed. 2 (Steudel), 1: 143 (1840).
- Family: Poaceae (Gramineae)
- Chromosome number: 2n = 24, 36, 44, 46, 47, 48, 49, 50, 51, 52, 53, 54, 56, 72, 84, 96, 120. In tropical Africa 2n = 4x = 48 predominates.
- Phragmites communis Trin. (1820),
- Phragmites vulgaris Crép. (1866).
- Common reed, ditch reed, giant reed, yellow cane, reed grass, giant reedgrass (En).
- Roseau commun, roseau des marais (Fr).
- Caniço, caniço d’agua, caniço dos ribeiros, carriço (Po).
- Gugumua, matete, mtete (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Phragmites australis is a cosmopolitan grass that occurs on all continents except Antarctica and is thought to be the most widely distributed angiosperm. It is known in the wild, but is also cultivated and naturalized as an escape from cultivation. In tropical Africa it occurs in a belt around the dense forest zone, from Senegal east to Eritrea and from Ethiopia and Eritrea south to Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Swaziland. It also occurs in Madagascar.
Phragmites australis is a multipurpose grass. The stems are used in construction for thatching and to make walls, partitions and fences, and as insulation material. They are used for plaiting baskets, mats, clothing (such as coarse aprons, hats and shoes) and cordage, to make musical instruments (flutes and whistles), arrows, light spears and fishing gear, and ear ornaments and necklaces, prayer sticks ad smoking pipes. Panicles are made into brooms and are used for decoration. The hollow stems are widely used to make rafts. Pens for writing were cut from thin sections of the stem and the stems are also used as a linear measuring device. They are useful in the manufacture of pulp for paper, cardboard, cellophane and synthetic fibres. The pulp can be processed into a fine fibrous material suitable as a filler in upholstery. The fibre is suitable for rope making. The leaves are also used for weaving mats and other objects.
Early in the growing season, young leaves and stems are a forage for cattle and horses, but later they become tough and unpalatable. The plant may be cut for hay and can provide warm-season forage, if cut during the rainy season. Animals grazing it should be fed a protein supplement. Young shoots are sometimes used as a vegetable. In North America a gum exuding from the stems is eaten. The rhizomes and seeds also serve as emergency food. In Russia the rhizomes are harvested and processed into starch. The seeds are used in rattles and as beads.
The stems are harvested for fuel where better sources are not available and Phragmites australis may hold promises as a second generation energy crop. A variegated form is grown as an ornamental in both private and public gardens.
Throughout the tropics and subtropics, Phragmites australis is used medicinally, as a remedy for arthritis, bronchitis, cancer, cholera, cough, diabetes, diarrhoea, dropsy, fever, gout, hiccup, jaundice, leukaemia, nausea, pneumonia, rheumatism, sores, stomach pains and typhoid fever. The powdered seed is used in the Western Cape area, South Africa, as an ingredient in a burn ointment and the rootstock has been used as a diaphoretic, diuretic and emetic. In Chinese medicine it is used against rhinitis and bacterial meningitis. The seed is a component of a Venda aphrodisiac.
Recently, there has been much interest in the potential of Phragmites australis as water-clearing plant because of its dense growth, spreading root system and its ability to absorb pollutants including plant nutrients and heavy metals. Its adaptability to alternating wet and dry conditions, makes it one of the best water-clearing plants for the tropics. Phragmites australis is used in many wetland rehabilitation and stabilization projects. It is used to revegetate disturbed riparian areas, control shore erosion, stabilize river and canal banks, and reduce wave action on watershed structures. In the Netherlands, for instance, Phragmites australis played an important role in land reclamation. In polders reclaimed from the sea, it was sown as the first crop because of its salt tolerance, while the high transpiration rate helped to dry and stabilize the soil. Afterwards the land was tilled and drained and Phragmites australis was eliminated.
Production and international trade
Although Phragmites australis is widely used, few production and trade data are available. In the past, harvesting Phragmites australis was mainly for subsistence use, but currently a flourishing international market has emerged, for instance from the Danube delta. In Romania Phragmites australis production increased from about 6500 t in 1955 (all hand harvested) to 226,000 t in 1964 (89% mechanically harvested). After 1964, however, harvests decreased steadily to about 30,000 t in 1996. Other major production areas are southern Russia, Ukraine and Poland. Phragmites australis is shipped in raw form or as finished products to other European countries, such as Italy, Germany, and England, where the rustic look of thatched roofs and fences is popular and has become a status symbol. The commercialization of the harvesting of Phragmites australis by local communities in Africa has increased and trade of its products is also important. For several communities living around the Okavango delta in Botswana, harvesting reed (Phragmites australis and Phragmites mauritianus Kunth) is a major source of income. High demand, habitat decline and destructive harvesting have led to steep price increases, at least in South Africa.
Even in temperate areas, untreated stems of Phragmites australis deteriorate within 10 years, but with correct harvesting and preservative treatment, its life expectancy can increase about tenfold. Mature stems have greater resistance to deterioration than younger ones. In Europe well built and well maintained roofs may last 50 to 70 years, if the ridge is replaced every 5 to 15 years. The reed yield of 1.6–2 ha is needed to cover 140 m² roof. In Botswana the stems used for fencing last for 1.5–2 years before they deteriorate.
Mature cane is suitable for paper production. Cane harvested in the Danube delta at the beginning of winter and containing about 20% water, contains per 100 g dry matter about 43 g cellulose, 26 g lignin, 24 g pentosan. The soil type has little influence on the cellulose content; it was similar in canes growing on sandy river banks, clayey river banks, in sweet water or brackish swamps or on floating islands. The fibre is 0.8–3 mm long, 5–30.5 μm in diameter and thick-walled. Fibre cells are accompanied by abundant thin-walled pitted fibres of variable lengths.
Leafy material is suitable as fodder, especially when young. Older stems are less palatable. During the growing season the carbohydrate content falls from about 50 g to about 10 g per 100 g dry matter, mainly in favour of the cellulose content which rises from 16 g to 44 g per 100 g dry matter. Analysis of young leafy samples from the Danube delta indicated 31% dry matter, containing per 100 g: 40–45 g N-free extract, about 1.8 g crude fat, 31–35 g crude fibre, 14 g crude protein, and 11 g ash. Hay (dry matter 86%) contained per 100 g dry matter: fat 0.5 g, sugars/starch 20 g, cellulose 12 g and digestible protein 3 g. The relatively high silica content reduces the palatability. It is lower in cane grown on floating islands and in acidified dried cane.
Adulterations and substitutes
As a source of thatching material Phragmites australis is often replaced by other grass species including Hyparrhenia hirta (L.) Stapf (common thatching grass) and Hyperthelia dissoluta (Nees ex Steud.) Clayton (yellow thatching grass), or by palm leaves.
Robust, perennial grass arising from an extensive, stout, vertical and horizontal creeping rhizome; stem (culm) straight, up to 6 m tall and 15 mm in diameter, leafy throughout, nodes glabrous, internodes 10–25 cm long, hollow, usually farinose below nodes; above-ground stolons often present. Leaves alternate, simple and entire; sheaths imbricate at first, later shorter than the internodes, loose, smooth, ligule a rim of hairs 1–1.5 mm long; blade usually drooping, linear to very narrowly lanceolate, up to 100 cm × 0.5–5 cm, base slightly auriculate, apex filiform acuminate, rather firm, glabrous but sometimes pilose near the base and sometimes scaberulous along the edges. Inflorescence a plumose, strongly branched panicle oblong to ovate-oblong in outline, up to 50 cm × c. 10(–17) cm, erect, later nodding, silvery-purplish or brownish, with silky beards at lowest branches; rachis terete in the lower part, angular in the upper part, barbate at the nodes; branches fascicled, angular, some of them bearing spikelets almost to their base, densely hirsute at insertion. Spikelets cuneate, laterally compressed, 10–18 mm long, on glabrous or pilose pedicel 2–4 mm long, with (3–)4–8(–10) florets at base; lowest 1–2 flowers male; following flowers bisexual; apical flower reduced; glumes 2, acute, 3- or 5-veined, persistent, lower glume 3–5 mm long, upper glume 6–9 mm long; lower lemma linear-lanceolate to linear-oblong, 8–15 mm, acute to acuminate, with the margins involute; fertile lemmas 9–12 mm long, narrowly lanceolate, acuminate, glabrous; lodicules 2, 1–1.5 mm long, plumose with hairs 6–10 mm long and as long as lemma; palea 1.5–4 mm long; stamens 1–3 in basal florets, 3 in apical florets, anthers c. 4 mm long; ovary with bifid, hairy style. Fruit a caryopsis (grain) c. 1–5 mm long, bristled.
Other botanical information
Phragmites is a cosmopolitan genus of at least 4 species, of which 3 occur in tropical Africa. The species of the genus are very close and difficult to distinguish. Phragmites mauritianus Kunth differs from Phragmites australis in having woodier stems, more rigid leaves and smaller glumes. Phragmites karka (Retz.) Trin. ex Steud. is intermediate between Phragmites australis and Phragmites mauritianus in many morphological characters. Introgression, occurring where the distributions overlap, has blurred the distinctions still more.
Phragmites australis is extremely polymorph, with numerous ecotypes and chromosomal variants (both polyploidy and aneuploidy playing a role). Two subspecies are recognized: Phragmites australis subsp. australis, widespread in temperate regions of both hemispheres, and Phragmites australis subsp. altissimus (Benth.) Clayton, from the shores of the Mediterranean, extending to Iran, and southwards to Arabia, Ethiopia, Kenya and the southern edge of the Sahara. The 2 subspecies are rather imperfectly distinguished by the shape of the upper glume.
Growth and development
Phragmites australis flowers and fruits throughout the year in frost-free areas. Pollen fertility and seed set are poor as abnormalities often occur during mitosis. Self-incompatibility or at least partial self-incompatibility is common. While self-pollination yielded 2.8 and 8.9% seed set in two Japanese populations, cross-pollination produced 52.4 and 64.4% seed set. Consequently, accretion from seed is generally low, but may be important in the spread to new sites. Germination only occurs in shallow water. If conditions are favourable, germination may begin within 2 days at 25–27°C, or after 4–5 days at 15–16°C. Germination rates decrease with increasing salinity; a concentration of 50 mmol NaCl decreased germination. Germination is a highly vulnerable period and optimum habitat conditions for germination differ from the typical environment of the adult plant.
Vegetative propagation through dispersal of rhizome fragments by water currents, animals and humans is an important means of colonization of new areas. Once established, expansion of a stand occurs primarily through vegetative growth of the rhizome.
Approximately two thirds of the biomass is allocated to the rhizome, which can reach a depth of 2 m. This growth pattern produces homogeneous clumps with up to 200 stems/m². Throughout most of its range Phragmites australis typically forms closed mono-dominant stands in both disturbed and pristine areas, even though its own litter reduces its growth. In Europe, lateral rhizome spread has been as great as 1–2 m per year, and during periods of decreasing water levels, colonies can increase in width by as much as 15 m in a single season. Stolons, which may grow up to 11 cm per day, are produced in young stands or over open water; they further aid in rapid stand expansion.
Stems are renewed each growing season. Growth can reach 4 cm/day. Rhizomes of Phragmites australis live for 3 to 7 years, horizontal parts up to 12 years. Rhizomes contain an extensive horizontal and vertical aeration system allowing rapid metabolism. Buds develop at the base of the vertical rhizomes in late summer each year. These buds mature and typically grow about 1 metre (up to 10 m in newly colonized, nutrient-rich areas) horizontally before terminating in an upward apex and going dormant until spring. The apex then grows upward into a vertical rhizome, which in turn produces buds that will form more vertical rhizomes. Vertical rhizomes also produce horizontal rhizome buds, completing the vegetative cycle. The aerial shoots arising from the rhizomes are most vigorous at the periphery of a stand. While morphology is not directly based on ploidy level, it has been found that giant reeds are most often octoploid and fine reeds are either tetraploid or hexaploid. In Romania octoploid plants have greater vegetative vigour and grow in deeper water than tetraploids and are sometimes found in floating reed-beds, while tetraploids are more common in shallow water and in more saline habitats.
Phragmites australis is a C3 plant, but has anatomical characteristics intermediate between C3 and C4 plants.
Phragmites australis is best adapted to marshes and shallow water along the shoreline of lakes, ponds, swamps, ditches, streams, canals, rivers, and estuaries. It grows best where the water level fluctuates from 15 cm below soil surface to 15 cm above. Growth rates are higher in shallow (5–20 cm) than in deep (70–75 cm) water, but depth may reach 1 m. Wind generated waves may amplify the negative effects of high water depth. Minor water movement promotes the creation of floating mats or islands in which reed growth continues without soil contact.
Although Phragmites australis grows best on clay, it occurs in a wide variety of soils and tolerates moderate salinity. Stands in the Nile Delta tolerate a soil pH of 7.0–9.3. Low nitrogen or phosphorous availability, high salinity and extensive tidal flooding may limit growth. Standing dead material often totals twice as much biomass as current growth, allowing stands to burn even during the growing season. Phragmites australis tolerates fire if water is above the soil surface. It also tolerates late season drought; deep rooting imparting drought resistance. Phragmites australis is a warm-season grass that starts growth after the last frost has occurred and remains green until frost in autumn. Wide climatic tolerance is indicated by its range that stretches from the tropics to cold temperate areas and from sea level to elevations of at least 2000 m, reaching 3000 m in Tibet.
Phragmites australis is often found in association with other wetland plants including species of Carex, Cyperus, Nymphaea, Typha, Juncus, Myrica, and Phalaris. Emergent shoots of Phragmites australis compete successfully with these species.
Phragmites australis is a serious weed in many areas and is considered a noxious weed in the United States. It is a weed of rice in Senegal, cotton, maize, and rice in Russia, sugar beet in Zimbabwe and the Netherlands, and sugarcane in Australia. Once established, it is difficult to eradicate, and it can block canals, streams, and drainage ditches. It is common on irrigated land, where it infests all crops. Phragmites australis aggressively colonizes large areas of shoreline and shallow marshes; its thick sod and heavy stand of stems effectively prevents wave- and current-caused erosion, but the single-species stands may completely displace other native marsh communities and many of the fauna they support.
Propagation and planting
Phragmites australis may produce large quantities of seed, but often very few are viable. Water depths of more than 5 cm and salinities above 2% by weight prevent germination. The germination is not affected by salinities below 1%. The germination percentage increases with increasing temperature from 16 to 25°C, while the time required to germinate decreases from 25 to 10 days over the same temperature range. Once established, Phragmites australis spreads by rhizomes and stolons. Small parts of rhizomes take root easily; therefore, tillage promotes vegetative reproduction. New stands are sometimes established by planting rhizome segments. This is normally not recommended because of the invasive nature of the species.
It is possible to produce young plants of Phragmites australis through in-vitro culture of immature inflorescences. A micropropagation system has been developed using 2,4-D to initiate callus growth and myoinositol to induce somatic embryogenesis.
Phragmites australis cannot withstand prolonged heavy grazing. Its upright growth makes it easy for livestock to remove all the leaves. For maximum production, no more than 50% of current year’s growth by weight should be grazed off.
The effects of nutrients on the growth of Phragmites australis is complex. Biomass, density, shoot length and diameter were reported to be higher from constructed wetlands flooded with sewage sludge than from natural sites. Positive relationships were also detected between the nutrient supply and stalk and rhizome growth, above ground and below ground biomass, and the ratio of above ground to below ground biomass. On the other hand, it has been found that increasing amounts of nitrogen (caused by intensive agriculture and eutrophication, for instance) result in reduced amounts of sclerenchyma in both shoots and rhizomes and, consequently, in reduced strength of the plants. Others found that nutrient levels usually have no significant effect on stem morphology.
Although the accumulation of heavy metals in Phragmites australis is well investigated, their effects on reed growth and morphology are less studied. There are reports confirming that copper may reduce the length and dry weight of roots and shoots and that accumulated heavy metals cause reduced reed growth especially under flooded conditions.
Eliminating weedy stands is difficult. The best approaches are heavy grazing by cattle, and repeated spraying with a herbicide, e.g. glyphosate. Combining herbicide and grazing or mowing gives the best results. Burning in spring also effectively kills a significant proportion of plants.
For waste-water treatment, polluted effluent is routed through a septic tank-like compartment, where the solid waste is allowed to settle. The water then trickles through a constructed wetland or artificial Phragmites australis bed, where bacterial action on the surface of roots and leaf litter breaks down organic waste and removes many of the pollutants. The water is then suitable for irrigation or discharge to natural watercourses. A disadvantage of such systems is that most of the pollutants are stored in subsurface biomass, making removal difficult without some destruction of shoot, rhizome and root structures.
Diseases and pests
Few diseases and pests of Phragmites australis have been recorded in tropical Africa; Puccinia coronata (crown rust) is recorded in East Africa, and Saccharicoccus sacchari (grey sugarcane mealybug) and Dimorphopterus (a seed bug) throughout tropical Africa. Worldwide many diseases and pests of Phragmites australis have been recorded, but none of them is reported to have caused major damage.
Phragmites australis stems of the desired quality are selected and harvested by using knives, machetes and sickles or mechanized harvesters. Harvesting is best done when seed has matured and when fine leaves have started to dry. Moisture content should also be as low as possible to minimize insect and fungal attacks. To take advantage of the most durable part of the stem, it should be cut as close to the ground as possible. The stems with cut ends aligned, are loosely tied in small bundles and combed to remove debris and fine leaves. The straight hollow stems are cut in late autumn or winter and dried. In general, harvesting increases reed density, but also increases the amount of dead rhizomes while it decreases growth rate and shoot length and diameter. As a result of over-harvesting, many Phragmites australis beds in communal areas in southern Africa have been degraded and are no longer producing stems of the desired quality. Harvesters in the Tembe Elephant Park, South Africa do not select Phragmites australis of only a particular thickness and height to harvest. Usually an area is selected and all Phragmites australis within that area are harvested. The cut reed is sorted into bundles containing stems of even thickness and length. The taller and thicker stems are the most prized and of the highest quality.
No data on fibre yield in Africa are available, but 1.6–2 ha is needed to cover 140 m² roof.
Handling after harvest
Freshly cut stems, complete with leaves are tied into bundles and left standing for a few days, allowing the leaves to transpire and reduce the starch content of the stem. This method, called ‘clump curing’, reduces attack by borer beetles, but has no effect on termites or fungi. Effective resistance to termites, most types of fungus and fire is achieved mainly by chemical treatment. Dry, well ventilated storage is essential.
The technology of making pulp from reed on an industrial scale has been known since the beginning of the 20th century, and it has been considered, abandoned and re-considered several times. The main problem was the preparation of the raw material (harvesting, transportation, storage, removal of leaves, knots and tops, etc.). Alkaline pulping processes have appeared most favourable. Phragmites australis pulp is suitable as a blend with other pulps for writing and printing papers. In China most Phragmites australis pulp is made by the bisulphite process. Parenchyma and epidermal cells are removed by screening in order to improve workability and paper properties.
As Phragmites australis is distributed widely in the tropics and subtropics, there is no risk of genetic erosion and also because a great deal of genetic diversity is being maintained in managed stands. A study in Italy found old monoclonal stands in stable environments, but also greater variability in younger stands in more dynamic environments. Genetic differences between populations in northern Italy and eastern Romania were small, indicating exchange of genetic material over large distances. Phragmites australis germplasm collection is maintained by the Institute of Crop Science (CAAS) and N.I. Vavilov All-Russian Scientific Research Institute of Plant Industry, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation.
Very little selection or breeding work on Phragmites australis has been done.
Phragmites australis is of great economic importance because of its many uses and its adaptability to a wide range of ecological conditions, including degraded sites. Special consideration should be given to using Phragmites australis for soil rehabilitation in local land-use systems. Future efforts should focus on the expansion of product research and development, the development of harvesting and processing equipment, and the identification of more efficient crop management strategies. The taxonomy of Phragmites and the distribution of its species also need research attention.
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Sources of illustration
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Correct citation of this article
Maroyi, A. & Oyen, L.P.A., 2011. Phragmites australis (Cav.) Trin. ex Steud. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.
Accessed 15 April 2019.
- See the Prota4U database.