Jackson Estuarine Laboratory

Determinants of expansion forPhragmites australis, common reed, in natural and impacted coastal marshes


The rapid spread ofPhragmites australis in the coastal marshes of the Northeastern United States has been dramatic and noteworthy in that this native species appears to have gained competitive advantage across a broad range of habitats, from tidal salt marshes to freshwater wetlands. Concomitant with the spread has been a variety of human activities associated with coastal development as well as the displacement of nativeP. australis with aggressive European genotypes. This paper reviews the impacts caused by pure stands ofP. australis on the structure and functions of tidal marshes. To assess the determinants ofP. australis expansion, the physiological tolerance and competitive abilities of this species were examined using a field experiment.P. australis was planted in open tubes paired withSpartina alterniflora, Spartina patens, Juncus gerardii, Lythrum salicaria, andTypha angustifolia in low, medium, and high elevations at mesohaline (14‰), intermediate (18‰), and salt (23‰) marsh locations. Assessment of the physiological tolerance ofP. australis to conditions in tidal brackish and salt marshes indicated this plant is well suited to colonize creek banks as well as upper marsh edges. The competitive ability ofP. australis indicated it was a robust competitor relative to typical salt marsh plants. These results were not surprising since they agreed with field observations by other researchers and fit within current competition models throught to structure plant distribution within tidal marshes. Aspects ofP. australis expansion indicate superior competitive abilities based on attributes that fall outside the typical salt marsh or plant competition models. The alignment of some attributes with human impacts to coastal marshes provides a partial explanation of how this plant competes so well. To curb the spread of this invasive genotype, careful attention needs to be paid to human activities that affect certain marsh functions. Current infestations in tidal marshes should serve as a sentinel to indicate where human actions are likely promoting the invasion (e.g., through hydrologic impacts) and improved management is needed to sustain native plant assemblages (e.g., prohibit filling along margins).


Jackson Estuarine Laboratory, Natural Resources and the Environment

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© Estuaries Research Federation 2003