Invasive Phragmites and Cattail


Wetland plants that are invasive.

I wanted to address a comment that mentioned my use of the word invasive, and thought I should have been more clear. I showed you cattail in astounding numbers in a local marsh wetland. There are two kinds of cattail, one that is native and one that is an invasive non-native. I did not state the variety in the last post because I had this post coming and would have to go into much detail. In fact, the two are so intermingled that it is almost pointless to differentiate.

The native variety is becoming less common because the invasive cattail grows taller and more dense, crowding it out.  This is a big problem on removal as you will see.


Buckhorn Island State Park

The one shown here is predominantly the invasive variety, Typha angustifolia,or Narrow Leaf Cattail.  One can tell by the long, thin hotdog shape, the native variety is shorter and thicker. Cattail dispersion occurs underground, by way of rhizomes that form dense monospecific stands. While important, they can also reduce the biodiversity of wetlands.


Typha angustifolia is fast growing and has several strategies for out competing other emergent species, even the native variety, Typha latifolia. Having a tolerance for saline water, the exotic can quickly colonize and establish open sites.

One of the reasons it became so prevalent is that it did not look all that much different. By the time it was noticed, it was far too established. Ironically, it is not prohibited on many state invasive lists though.


Buckhorn Island State Park

Part of the Problem

At Buckhorn Island State Park, the Channel of Burnt Ship Creek filled in with cattail, and water was unable to fill the marsh sufficiently. The water level has been lowered by the diversion of water for industrial plants along the Niagara River. This has decreased the quality of wildlife in this wetland habitat.


Many big birds are coming in an upcoming post. All wildlife shown here is from both preserves, the egret from Buckhorn.

The native vegetation is being restored with the help of many agencies and individuals. In addition to Narrow-leaved cattail (Typha angustifolia), a number of other exotic species are present in the marsh, including Common reed (Phragmites australis), Purple loosestrife, European alder, Yellow iris, Garlic mustard, Japanese knotweed, and invasive bush honeysuckles (Lonicera spp).


Forsythia is also in both preserves.

Removal has concentrated on the Phragmites because it poses the most threat to the marsh land, and the cattail was not part of the study and removal plan below.


Red-Winged Blackbird

“Both Broad-leaved cattail (native, invasive) and Narrow-leaved cattail (exotic, invasive) occur in the marsh and are sometimes intermixed in the same stand. It is therefore possible that hybrid cattails known as Typha x glauca are present as well. Broad and Narrow-leaved cattails have been a dominant fixture in this marsh and surrounding areas since historical surveys conducted more than 80 years ago.” (source)

Cattail Benefit

Ecologically, native cattail offer plenty of benefits. It is a spawning grounds for a variety of fish, including Northern Pike and large mouth bass, but migration is limited due to water levels and the dense stand of cattail in this particular marsh.


Red-winged blackbirds as well as many waterfowl such as Canada geese and mallard ducks nest in their thick coverage. The catbird resides in the thick reeds.



Many upland songbirds will fluff their nests with the flowers.

Cattail Flower Head

Cattail Flower Head

The birds also use the native Eastern Cottonwood tree, Populus deltoides too which resides in the woods of Buckhorn. Mammals such as beavers and muskrats feed on the rhizomes of cattail for food. But from studies I read, the invasive cattail does not offer all the same benefits.


To Make Matters Worse

The non-native will hybridize with native cattail, Typha latifolia, to produce the hybrid T. x glauca, also a recognized invasive plant of wetlands. The hybrid is thought to be sterile in that it does not produce seed, but it still can form large stands by means of vegetative reproduction.



Phragmites at Tifft.

Now for an even bigger threat …

Phragmites australis.

It is a fast growing threat to native ecosystems due to the plant’s aggressive ability to dominate a variety of ecosystems. It seems to grow many places that have water, like you see roadside along swales and drainage ditches.


A native species of Phragmites exists in the area, but the invasive variety quickly displaces the native variety. It is prevalent in emerging wetlands, very similar to the cattail.


Northern Water Snake

This is due to rapid water level changes and the vast areas of exposed habitat located in emergent wetlands. Phragmites, like the cattail above, can become established quickly because of its underground rhizomes, and will also seed.


These images are the Phragmite at Tifft Nature Preserve. The power authority has been bringing in workers to reduce the plant here, especially around the area they are reintroducing the native cattail.


I do have the birds and critters photos coming from both Preserves.

In my professional life, I worked on a design project (at the firm where I worked)  to reclaim a neighboring wetland, Cherry Farms. It was a brownfield reclamation project, so I am familiar with the preservation and conscientious development of wetlands. Unfortunately, the well thought out project never got funded to my knowledge.

About Garden Walk Garden Talk

I love to photograph, paint, draw, design, garden, travel the world, and pass on a few tips and ideas that I learned through experience as a Master Gardener and architect. I am highly trained in my field and enjoy my work each and every day. I garden in Niagara Falls, NY in zone 6-B. Find me at:
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42 Responses to Invasive Phragmites and Cattail

  1. Oh my Donna…you are a knowledgable source AND a crazy good photographer. If I have any questions about gardening and all subjects related thereto, I shall call you! Hey, that rhymed. Margie

    • Oh Margie, thank you for the kind words. I have experience in wetlands from the one major project on which I worked. It was the first architecture job that I had eco responsibilities to deal with and I was happy to work with landscape architects to learn this very specific type of design. The project took about a year too.

  2. Thanks for this informative post. I did not know there was an exotic invasive cattail. As for Phragmites, you can see massive stands of it in some wetland areas around here.

    I like the picture of the turtles!

    • Everyone thinks there in one type of cattail because what they most likely see is both varieties, They are difficult to tell the difference if you don’t know, but the width of the leaves, height of the plant and height/thickness of the flower head are keys in telling them apart.

  3. yourothermotherhere says:

    Those Phragmites are taking over where I live. It is my understanding that the state DNR introduced them into the area for some reason. On divided highways where there is a grass strip in between they grow like crazy and that’s especially dangerous when there is a wooded area on each side because before you know it, there’s a deer jumping out. I can remember when there were wild tiger lilies growing along the road with Queen Anne’s Lace, Golden Rod and even Irises. Now they are gone. That awful Phragmite even pushes out the cattails! This is really one of my pet peeves. Why introduce, or allow, plants, animals or fish that aren’t native to an area? It upsets the whole ecosystem.

    • I always thought it was in packing material and ballast that European ships dumped in ports in the early 20th century, but honestly I am not sure. I never heard it was intentionally planted. I have to check that out. You are right about it in the middle of the highway. When I was taking the photos, coincidentally I had two deer jump from them, cross the road in front of my Jeep, and scamper to the woods. It is exactly what happened and I took a blurry photo to prove it. I doubt it shows the Phragmites though because I snapped as they got to the other side. I have to look now.

  4. Sharon says:

    Dear Donna,
    I am new to your blog. I have subscribed to several but find I enjoy yours most. It is concise, informative, fresh, and fun to read. I think it is wise when a writer takes a subject that any audience can learn from, even a grade school child. You have the wonderful ability to take a higher subject, and turn it into enjoyable reading that is easy to grasp!
    Also, who enjoys coming home after a hard days work, and their minds being taxed because a writer wants to look intelligent by talking over one’s head?
    I do not know if you use all your own photography or borrow, or both, but I love it!
    So thank you for sharing your enthusiasm, knowledge and experience with us!

    • Thank you Sharon for the wonderful comment. All the photos on GWGT are my own and I am glad you enjoy them. I most enjoy taking photos of animals/insects, but do quite a bit of gardens and garden plants too.

  5. That’s a tough one to distinguish! Thanks for all the info–it all gets so complicated, doesn’t it?

    • Really it is not complicated as much as difficult to eliminate. I could write about ways in which they eliminate both Phragmites and Cattail, but it is basically a clear cut method. I may post one such example that occurred at Tifft. I did not work at the firm when Tifft was built, but much was removed to start fresh. The firm I worked for did the design work. I remember seeing photos when I worked at the firm. It was a difference of night and day what the property looked like. Today it is a beautiful place for wildlife and native plants.

      Both varieties of cattail can become invasive. I added the quote from the study specifically because the individual writing the study also used “invasive” for both varieties. As I mentioned, cattail is very beneficial to wildlife, but in excess it becomes a hindrance to spawning fish, along with upsetting a balance of other marsh vegetation. I made sure to photograph places where the excess occurs to try and illustrate.

  6. A very informative post. I am always wary of water plants. One never knows what will take off in the wetlands and it must hard as &*)) to get it out. I will be on the lookout for the two types of cattails.

    • There is actually more than I listed that is invasive. I may profile an Asian plant that is being culled too. These plants like water, but the Phragmites can grow at the forest edge too. See the second to last image? It grow in amongst the Oaks and Cottonwood. Granted, it is less happy there though, needing light and moisture.

  7. Karen says:

    Hello Donna, I did not know there was an invasive cattail, too. Phragmites I am familiar with, unfortunately. I wonder how it is eradicated? Seems like it would be a tremendously difficult job. Great photos, as always!

    • It is often burned, but it must be done by professionals because it burns fast and hot. It has a better ecological outcome. Homeowners are recommended to initially use a herbicide, then mechanical removal of pulling or mowing. The problem with eradication is that everything else goes along with it generally, both the native variety and the exotic. It is recommended to sort out the two, but that is a monumental chore. The native has lighter colored leaves (other differences too:, but really does look similar.

  8. Thanks, beautiful photos and a new sad reality of Invasives taking over much of our native habitiats

  9. Invasive species can be so tricky. When I first saw lesser celandine in my neighbor’s lawn, it was so pretty that I almost transplanted some into my garden. Yikes!

  10. Thanks for this informative posts. Like others commenting I wasn’t aware there was an invasive variety of cattail. It seems like a herculean task to get rid of the invasive cattails. Ugh! Wetlands certainly have enormous challenges. Love your shot of the snake!

    • The reason that people don’t know is because like I mentioned above, since both intermingle, it is almost impossible to remove one and not the other. People turn their heads and go after plants easier to eliminate. The brambles are an example. At Tifft Nature Preserve they did that in an area and planted new native trees, like Oak. I have photos that I may do a post one this. Many volunteer hours went into it, but many of these projects are funded too. Those snakes very swimming all over. I took so many photos. A little five year old pointed out the first one to me.

  11. Christy says:

    Hi Donna…another very informative post. I didn’t really know anything about cattails except in the “old days” I would use them as decorations in my house. Love all the pictures.

  12. Karen says:

    I alway enjoy your very interesting posts…you are so knowledgeable.

    • Thank you Karen. I had to learn all that I could on wetlands for my job. The project that I designed, I worked with another architect of landscape design. I think he was learning a bit too. My job was very complex as I was siting an interpretive center in a wetland on a chemical dump site. A special foundation had to be engineered to be able to “float” over the containment.

  13. Donna-a very informative post with some amazing photography of the wildlife. You always seem to be in the right place at the right time!

  14. Thank you for this local look at this issue. I recall the day I realized the phragmites had taken over our farm pond and pushed out my much beloved local cattail. But now, you make me wonder if it was the indigenous cat tail or not. I recall our cat tails being shorter and fatter than the non-indig you show here, so maybe they were the indiginous lot. -Great post. Renee

    • Chances are it was both. The native could have been established, but likely the exotic also was present. Honestly, I am not sure how it always finds its way to these places either. Birds help spread it though. With cattail, the birds use the seed tufts for nesting. They must drop a lot of it.

  15. catmint says:

    fascinating and important post, thanks Donna. We can’t keep things the same, and can’t eradicate the invasive species once they’ve invaded, so it’s how to manage the situation. We make a distinction between native and non-native plants, but that distinction seems to be blurring, and maybe not so useful during times of mass migration of plants.

    • I feel the same way. I keep talking about the “new” natives because so many plants are so prevalent that they are being ignored to rid of the exotics. Some plants I just don’t get either, like dandelion and daisies.

  16. A.M.B. says:

    This is very interesting. Part of me, a small part, thinks, “Well, that’s just survival of the fittest.” But, really, a loss of bio-diversity is a big problem, and I do think that humans should intervene to fix our mistakes.

    • My only concern with the exotics is what are we losing in the process. I fear for birds and insects, but since part of the chain of life, that moves on up to mammals that make meals of the smaller creatures too. When one main food source can’t be sustained, it affects a whole series of them too.

  17. Fergiemoto says:

    Very informative, Donna. I did not know about the non-native varieties. Growing up around cattails, I remember them being shorter and very thick. I’m going to look at my recent bird refuge photos and see what kind I notice now.

  18. Fossillady says:

    That phragmite looks like a pampas grass which seems to have taken over our wetlands and ditches around the Kalamazoo River area in Michigan. I see it where cattails used to be. One particular area, they removed purple loostrife which has now been replaced by the phragmite just in the last couple years. I didn’t realize there were two types of cattail. Will have to observe closer. Thanks for sharing Donna, Take care, Kathi

    • Pampas grass is the species Poaceae I think, but they do look very similar. The Purple Loosetrife is such a beautiful plant and that is how it got so out of control, people planted it. It is a shame that certain plants get so invasive, where that is all you see for acres on acres.

  19. Les says:

    As it is elsewhere, Phragmites is a very real problem here. This past weekend I took a tour of Back Bay Wildlife Refuge in Va. Beach lead by the regional biologist for the Fish and Wildlife Service. I already knew most of what he had to tell us about Phragmites, but he did say it has one very real benefit. It traps sediment, building soil levels in the process, and in this area with rising seas and sinking land, that could be a good thing, or not.

  20. So many things threaten our wetlands and especially the invasive species like Phragmites…this is compounding the problem but what to do…I know organizations and environmental colleges are still experimenting with how we can eradicate some of these if at all.

    • They have ways to eliminate it, but some of the problem is the native and exotic live side by side. They are removing it at Tifft, but spreading by rhizome makes it difficult to do by hand. Chemicals have been applied in some places and that is not a good alternative either.

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