Monday, January 13, 2014

Don't Shoot the Messenger!...

“Common Reed”

Historical Background
Native Americans in the Southwestern United States and northern Mexico used carrizo (Phragmites australis) for everything from thatching the roofs of their jacales to making arrows, flutes, pipes, baskets, and even canoes.  The reed had medicinal uses and a sweet honey-like residue was harvested from aphids that lived on the slender stalks during summer.  There are records of carrizo used to make splints for broken bones as well as rattles for both curative ceremonies and social gatherings.  By the way, carrizo flutes were used both in celebrations and as part of the threatening gestures preceding attacks.

As a boy I spent holidays and summers living in a stone-walled cabin thatched with carrizo.  The thick roof kept us cool in the summer and warm in the winter.  This was in the state of Tamualipas, Mexico along the banks of the San Fernando RiverIn those days farmers had yet to annihilate the brushlands.  But a few years later they arrived and leached the soil of its nutrients eventually turning much of the region into a desert.  The cabin sat on a hilltop and at the base of the hill near the river lived the ranch foreman and his wife.  They occupied two identically sized jacales (ha-khal-es).  One of the jacales served as cooking hut and the other as sleeping hut.  Both huts were made of mud and sticks formed into walls about eight inches thick.  The roof was thatched carrizo as was the porch connecting the two huts.  The foreman and his wife were indigenous people and they knew the ways of the land intimately.  Their ancestors had lived in the area for perhaps ten thousand years and their jacales were exactly like those built many centuries before.  Carrizo was such an integral part of the people’s lives that families cultivated it alongside rivers and swampy areas.  The ranch next to ours had a marshy lake that attracted hundreds of ducks and geese, and a hunter had built several duck blinds using clumps of carrizo tied together then piled one atop the other.  On another ranchito a man built a chicken coop with carrizo and on the road leading back 20 miles to the town a family had built a cortijo (cor-tee-ho) or farmhouse entirely with bundles of carrizo tied together into rigid walls.  The cortijo’s roof was thatched.  I’ve always wondered if sturdy and energy efficient houses couldn’t be built using Phragmites australis bundled in the same manner then sprayed with some sort of sealant and hardener.  A covering of chicken wire with stucco applied over it might serve as well as seen in straw baled dwellings.

Phragmites arrow shafts were used by many Native American tribes.

I enjoy making carrizo arrows.  Phragmites australis arrow shafts are sturdy enough to absorb the shock of being shot from a 40-50 pound bow.  A hardwood foreshaft is usually inserted into the front end of the reed extending two to six inches onto which a broadhead made of stone, bone or metal is hafted.  In the case of fishing arrows the foreshaft is notched with barbs and no feathers are added to the main reed shaft.  Carrizo measures between 3/8 and 5/8 inch in diameter and can grow to about twelve feet high.  A member of the grass family it’s actually more closely related to sugar cane than bamboo and yet one easily sees the family resemblance to the stouter bamboo species.

A Phragmites arrow nearing completion.

The Columbian Exchange
The arrival of Europeans on the North American continent in 1492 started what some historians call “The Columbian Exchange.”  In effect, European exploration and subsequent settlement initiated a transfer of biological species in both a western and eastern direction.  Potatoes, tobacco, cotton and corn went to Europe while wheat, barley, apples and almonds came to America.  The exchange included hundreds of plants and animals.  Europeans gave America rats and pigs while America gave Europe turkeys and llamas.  America received chicken pox, measles, leprosy and small pox; and Europe was paid back with syphilis and Chagas disease.  The list is long and complicated and as other parts of the world came to America the list grew longer and longer.  In fact, the exchange continues even today.

The War on Phragmites
But what of Phragmites?  You see, there is only one species of Phragmites and that is australis.  Some botanists have wanted to divide Phragmites australis into three species but so far their efforts have not been accepted by the botanical community.  This, however, is where things get complicated and perhaps a bit hypocritical.  You see Phragmites is found all over the world but in slightly different veneers or what biologists call “subspecies.”  These subspecies look essentially alike and only an expert can tell the difference.  But because of the Columbian Exchange various subspecies of Phragmites have arrived in the USA and a lot of people are upset over that fact.  A European subspecies of Phragmites is now “clogging” drainage areas and crowding other wetlands.  Remember that Phragmites has been here for thousands of years and, in fact, botanists call the US subspecies Phragmites australis americanus.  There is a southern subspecies called Phragmites australis berlandieri found in Mexico and the southwestern US.  Remember also these are all members of the same species with varying morphological features and ecological preferences.  Not to bore you here but here’s the rub: This newly “invasive” Phragmites subspecies is a result of human behavior.  Furthermore, Phragmites is not so much “invasive” as it is opportunistic.  In this sense the term invasive is not all that well thought out.  Phragmites, like many other species, simply accommodates itself to conditions that allow energy to flow more successfully through the environment.  Forgive me if this is getting a bit academic but it’s important to understand that ultimately all ecological systems focus on how effectively energy is transferred from one point to another.  Therefore, Phragmites (and other species) can be thought of as a super energy transfer mechanism within environments conducive to its growth.  But because Phragmites has been given such an excellent chance to succeed it has taken over in many cases.  Now this is important: Phragmites is actually a messenger telling us that our actions as humans are stressing the entire ecological system.  What’s upsetting is when we read reports from groups that should know better but instead issue calls for extermination as if reciting something by rote.  Here’s a case in point from The Nature Conservancy’s website.

Over the last two centuries Indiana has lost 85% of its wetlands.  Many of the remaining wetlands have been dramatically altered, degraded by soil disturbance, increased sedimentation, nutrient loading and salinization from road salt.  These changes are bad for our native plants, but good for common reed.  Common reed, Phragmites australis, is an invasive perennial grass ranging in heights of 3-15 feet.  Its leaves are wide, smooth and flat with large, showy and feathery flowers that vary from a wheat color to grayish-purple when in fruit.  Dense stands are found in open wetland habitats, alongside rivers, shores of lakes and ponds and even in the polluted soils along roadsides and ditches.  Huge colonies form quickly, but not from seeds.  Instead, common reed relies on rhizomes, a horizontal stem that grows beneath the surface and sprouts new roots and shoots from underground, to invade our natural communities. A stand of common reed can extend its boundaries by as much as 50 feet within one season….Common reed competes with native wetland plants, and it plays to win.  Once introduced, it will overtake a marsh community quickly by crowding out native vegetation, changing marsh hydrology, altering wildlife habitat and increasing fire potential.  Its high biomass blocks light to other plants and occupies all the growing space below ground quickly turning a once diverse plant community into a phragmites monoculture.  Once established, it spreads like a thick blanket, smothering native vegetation and filling in shallow open water….”

The Nature Conservancy article paints a dim picture of Phragmites with little understanding of the greater ecological and ethical issues involved.  Perhaps unwittingly the writer admits in the first paragraph that human behavior is to blame for both the demise of local wetlands and the abundance of Phragmites.  (“Over the last two centuries Indiana has lost 85% of its wetlandsMany of the remaining wetlands have been dramatically altered, degraded by soil disturbance, increased sedimentation, nutrient loading [via agriculture] and salinization from road salt.”)  The author errs by saying that Phragmites is not native.  As mentioned earlier Phragmites is native to North America in the form of Phragmites australis americanus and Phragmites australis berlandieri but (due to the Columbian Exchange) the European subspecies has arrived in the US.

The Nature Conservancy suggests that Phragmites be dealt with by using a poisonous herbicide called “Rodeo” that many consider harmful to the environment as well as human health.  One begins to wonder if all of this is actually less about maintaining a stable ecosystem and, in fact, more about economic gains.  An article in the New York Times “Business Day” segment published on September 13, 2013 entitled, “Misgivings about how a weed killer affects the soil,” notes the harmful outcomes of this class of herbicide on soil constituents and the overall ecology.  But what is most revealing in this article is that farmers insist on using these deleterious herbicides because they make their business more profitable.  In other words, it’s less about the environment and more about profit.  “Anything you put on the land affects the chemistry and biology of the land, and that’s a powerful pesticide,” noted a farmer named, Von Arb in the New York Times article.  But another farmer countered that “it’s just too profitable to give up [the use of powerful herbicides.]”  Even so, the literature is filled with reports of how herbicides affect the environment in negative ways.  Herbicides devastate earthworms that are so vital to a healthy soil matrix.  They are likewise harmful to sensitive individuals that might breathe the fumes or in some way come in contact with the poison.  Herbicides also harm our pollinators that are already diminishing in most places; and they kill many amphibians in wetland areas as well.

It’s important to know that many groups, particularly with business interests, are promoting mass eradication of Phragmites for everything from increased urban development to improved drainage systems.  But perhaps The Nature Conservancy should have focused on those human caused stimuli that are creating unstable ecosystems instead of simply urging the destruction of a plant that is doing nothing more than sending us a message about how we’re harming the planet.  Besides, killing off Phragmites with herbicides will only create other problems.  It has solved nothing in the long run.  Urban sprawl and increased agricultural pollution will do more to eradicate wetlands (as it has done already) than Phragmites australis or similar opportunistic plants.  Hopefully, The Nature Conservancy will act more responsibly and evaluate things more eclectically in the future.  But I wonder if any of you have noted the irony in all of this.  The word invasive has become quite popular in the world of biology.  Any plant or animal is now considered invasive if it crowds out economic interests or if it is believed to threaten what biologists consider historical plant or animal populations.  So let me see now: Once there was a biological subspecies living in America that was crowded out by another subspecies from Europe.  The European subspecies is therefore “invasive” and according to the logic applied by groups like The Nature Conservancy and others it should be eradicated.  Hmmm, I don’t think the folks at The Nature Conservancy are much into deep analysis.

Here’s the article from The Nature Conservancy:


  1. What I sometimes wonder is that nature has managed, for millions of years to survive, without the benefit of our "nature management style": ie burn, dig, drain, slash, replace with concrete and money. Most humans (not all) seem to actually like destroying all around us. That's bad for nature. Ultimately its bad for us humans too. Fouling our own nest big time. Despite our blind faith in "science" and "new technologies" we are going to get kicked in the teeth sometimes soon.

    1. I agree. Like you said: Nature seemed to get along nicely without human "management" for a very long time. And getting "kicked in the teeth" will probably happen sooner than later. The current situation worldwide is unsustainable. Population densities have reached critical proportions and at the same time we are depleting our resources at alarming rates.

    2. True. Humans are more destructive and invasive than reed grass (that's how I call phragmites). Despite this and the fact that is plant has lived here longer than the hardy, rapid growing European strain, people have the audacity to pin ecological problems on organisms like this, yet we have done more damage than this plant ever has, and ever will do. Reed grass is, a very useful plant; I should list what it CANNOT be used for, for the sake of shortness, it is edible, and therefore be profitable as a building and crafting material, and a food source... In short, phragmites is a horribly underrated plant in my eyes.

    3. The indigenous people of this region found phragmites to be one of the more important plants. Aside from being used for things like thatching the roofs of jacales and for making arrows and atlatl darts, it was also consumed for various medicinal purposes. Please see Jacob's excellent post below.

  2. By the way, Arturo, those arrows are splendid. I had not heard of using common reed canes for arrows, at least not in the UK. I have extensive beds of common reeds within walking distance. I think I'll look at them closely when they start growing again! Really nice job. Thanks for showing them.

    1. Phragmites is my favorite arrow material. For bows up to 50 pounds or thereabouts it makes an amazing arrow. Chronograph reports from the Traditional Bowyer's Bible indicate it shoots faster than conventional hardwood arrows. My experience affirms that. I will post something on making carrizo arrows.Thanks, Joel. Hope things are going well your way.

  3. Deep insight here, and tantalizing hints about more uses for this amazing plant. For anyone else interested, here's some quick and dirty info about carrizo's medicinal properties

    MEDICINAL PROPERTIES: Antiasthmatic, Antidote, Antiemetic, Antitussive, Depurative, Diuretic, Febrifuge, Stomachic, Styptic

    PARTS USED: Leaves, Roots, Stems

    COMMON CONDITIONS: Bleeding (External) - apply ash of the leaves • Bronchitis – Leaves; raw or cooked • Cholera – Decoction of the flowers. Leaves; raw or cooked • Coughs (Mucus) – Root decoction or root juice • Diarrhea - Root decoction or root juice • Fever – Root decoction, stem decoction or root juice • Nausea – Root decoction, stem decoction or root juice • Poisoning (Food) – Flower decoction, root decoction, stem decoction or root juice • Sores (Infected) - Apply ash of the leaves • Vomiting - Root decoction, stem decoction or root juice.

    NOTE: Root juice can be obtained my chewing it, swallowing the juice and spiting out the edible fibers.

    1. Excellent research, Jacob. Thanks for your comment.