Plant presents threat to wetlands.


Mar 11, 2001
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`Lowcountry kudzu': Phragmites a threat to area's wetlands.

By Lynne Langley, The (Charleston) Post and Courier

CHARLESTON | People who battle phragmites describe it as Lowcountry kudzu. The phrag, others call it, none too affectionately. One biologist calls it the greatest threat to wetlands.

"It's the only plant I know that can come into a marsh and form a dense monoculture," said Steven J. de Kozlowski, manager of the aquatic nuisance species program for the state Natural Resources Department.

"It grows up very fast and gets very tall," he said of the reed, which reaches 10 feet and bears brownish-purple plumes of flowers more than a foot long.
"It's the greatest threat we have to wetlands. ... It's the kudzu of the Lowcountry," said Bob Joyner, resident wildlife biologist at the 20,000-acre Tom Yawkey Wildlife Center in Georgetown.

The reed has taken hold at some Santee and Waccamaw river plantations, he said.

"We've joked that they should plant kudzu and let it shade out the phragmites, then kill the kudzu. It's easier to kill."

Joyner has been fighting the reed for 20 years.
"It has no value for wildlife but cover," he said. "Deer, rodents, nothing feeds on it."
It shades or chokes out native plants including spartina, which creates the estuarine food chain and nourishes larval crab, shrimp and marine fish.
It outgrows natives such as wild rice and plants grown as food for waterfowl and other critters, he said.

Phragmites turns wildlife habitat, a diverse and healthy ecosystem, into a single-species tangle that wildlife won't eat.

Normally found in wetlands, the reed pumps huge quantities of water into its blue-green leaves and dries out the ground.

When dead stems fall in winter, piles of litter fill pockets of water in marshes, sites that fish like, said DNR biologist Sandra Upchurch.

She's trying to locate all the phragmites in the ACE Basin, where it was first reported about two years ago.

It reportedly thwarts mosquito control because insecticides can't penetrate the thick leaves to reach breeding grounds.

The only animals that use the plant are alligators: They pull up the reeds for nesting material. But that causes the plant to spread to other areas.

It thrives in fresh water, in brackish and salt marshes, on the back side of beach dunes, in estuaries, along streams and rivers, in wetlands managed for waterfowl and on dredge disposal areas.

Above all, the reed likes disturbed sites.

Someone renting a Georgetown apartment found one of the plants growing up through a crack in the bathroom floor.

"It was invading the house," Joyner said.

Although no one claims to know for sure, many people say phragmites showed up here after dredging in the Winyah Bay area and work on sites where the spoil was placed.

Private contractors move equipment among spoil sites up and down the East Coast, and equipment that worked farther north, where the reed commonly grows, may have brought seeds or rootlike rhizomes.

Winds and water may transport it, too: The reed shot up on Sullivans Island and some other sites after the battering winds and floods of Hurricane Hugo.

There are thousands of acres along the Interstate 95 corridor through Delaware, New York and New Jersey.

"It makes impressive stands," de Kozlowski said. "It's all you see."

It also puts up an impressive fight.
Joyner has used an aquatic herbicide, hand sprayers and boats recently to knock back infestations on Sandy Island, protected land managed by the S.C. Nature Conservancy.

"I've heard of people dynamiting it to open up places for waterfowl," he said.

"The only thing that works is mowing, cutting it ankle high," Joyner said. "But that mows all the other vegetation."

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