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Penetanguishene resident calls for action on pesky phragmites

Pandemic to blame for diverting resources against invasive ecological threat, Penetanguishene official says after concerned resident petitions for action
Phragmites in the ditch
Invasive Phragmites as seen in a roadside ditch. Seed plumes are from the previous year's growth, while the green plants are the current year's growth.

If you thought caterpillars and moths were bad, your attention hasn't been to the roadside ditches in the last decade.

Diane Greenfield of Penetanguishene is very concerned about the spread of phragmites on the town’s shoreline and has sent a petition to the town of Penetanguishene calling for action.

Invasive phragmites (pronounced frag-MY-tees) were recognized in 2005 as this country’s worst invasive plant by Agriculture and Agri-food Canada. It is a tall perennial commonly known as the European common reed, found in wetlands, along roadside ditches, and in the shorelines throughout the Great Lakes.

In her petition to the town, Greenfield noted a small stand of invasive phragmites has grown over the past four years at Rotary Champlain Wendat Park with a second stand visible as well.

“I visited the park recently and am sad to say that nothing has been done and the patch is larger,” she wrote.

Greenfield is a master gardener emeritus with Simcoe County, and used that weight to ask that an action plan be placed on council’s agenda to be developed and completed this year.

The town's director of recreation and community services, Sherry Desjardins, confirmed Greenfield’s observations as per a 2019 Invasive Species (IS) report from the Severn Sound Environmental Association (SSEA).

“The Town and SSEA are very much aware of the presence of (invasive) phragmites in Penetanguishene,” Desjardins asserted, noting the town jointly funds the SSEA in collaboration with other municipalities. 

In the 2019 IS report, the SSEA advised at that time that any impacting removal of invasive phragmites on the two stands would be incredibly complex, as it is impossible to simply remove the plant; a multi-year effort would be required. IS coordinator Robert Canning wrote, “specifically, it would take at least 40 volunteers.”

“A call for volunteers was released in 2019,” explained Desjardins in her reply. “However, we were unable to recruit the necessary manpower to implement what was needed.”

The life cycle of phragmites, both native from the area and the invasive species threatening other plants and wildlife in the area, has a primary vegetative growth period between June to July and a flowering stage during August and September. To have the greatest effect in reducing invasive phragmites, a tight window of opportunity in mid-July annually is the ideal timeframe to attack.

COVID-19 strained efforts further, as the province went into shutdown in spring of 2020. Municipal offices closed, services were halted, and the world paused to focus efforts on dealing with the global pandemic.

Desjardins noted that last year’s grant-assisted volunteer effort to reduce the species “was cancelled and the department’s primary focus since has been to address pandemic related needs,” adapt legislation, and support vaccination initiatives.

“SSEA confirmed that management of (invasive) phragmites is a multi-year undertaking and cannot be controlled in one season,” Desjardin stated in direct response to Greenfield’s insistence.

“SSEA will continue to work with the Town to help plan and support (invasive) phragmites removal in the form of technical training for staff and, when restrictions permit, volunteer recruitment and other personnel for events to remove (invasive) phragmites at Rotary Champlain Wendat Park.”

Phragmites are a problme because its seeds spread quickly and out-competes native vegetation for water and nutrients while toxins release from its roots to impact its surroundings; it generally provides poor habitat and food for species-at-risk (SAR); its fast growth lowers water levels; fire hazards are increased as stands are mostly composed of dead stalks; other areas such as agriculture, road safety, and recreation activities are negatively impacted.

Invasive phragmites have been recognized as a threat by adjacent municipalities Midland and Tiny, with Tay naturally on board as the homebase for the SSEA.

Lynn Short teaches horticulture as the environmental stewardship coordinator for the Humber College arboretum.

“My focus there is to manage invasive species," she said. “One of the resources I recommend is at the Ontario Invasive Plant Council, there is a 2020 best management practices document for phragmites control.”

Short lives in Toronto with her husband, and they own a cottage in Wymbolwood Beach in Tiny Township where phragmites appeared 20 years ago. Having identified it as a problem for obstructing other beach owners from accessing their waterfront, Short attempted to control the plant. Two methods were found to work best: spading, and cutting to drown.

Spading is a method of removing phragmites from an ecosystem that is highly recommended due to its land-based properties and simple directions.

Using a spade blade placed at the base of the plant at a 45-degree angle, push the spade into the ground to sever the stem below the sediment. Then, remove the stalk while leaving the soil otherwise undisturbed and place the plant into a bag; a black garbage bag that is later sealed shut is advised so that internal solar heat can kill any plant life within.

Cutting to drown takes place in depths of water. By placing a recommended tool like a raspberry cane cutter on the sediment at the stalk, its cut will deprive the plant of as much sunlight and oxygen as possible. The held plant can then be disposed of in a bag; dried plants are best burned in campfires, according to professionals.   

While spading, cutting to drown, or other methods will not instantly remove phragmites as a threat, continual efforts at control will reduce phragmites numbers and nutrients over time until the native plants can recover and take over.

Dr. Janice Gilbert, executive director of Invasive Phragmites Control Centre, pleaded urgency in confronting the threat.

Her not-for-profit organization has implemented an amphibious vehicle known as truxors, imported from Sweden where they are used to aid in growth of phragmites on lands where they aren’t invasive.

In our area, however, Gilbert has modified the expensive tools to combat the reed with startling efficiency.

“We are quickly running out of time on the Great Lakes because water levels are dropping,” warned Gilbert. “We’re in the decline now for water levels, and it’s not going to be long before in the near shores is going to be too shallow for us to use this tool, so then we’re going to have to switch over to the water-safe herbicide Habitat Aqua which finally became available for legal use in Canada and Ontario. So we’re really, really happy that we now have that tool as well.”

Gilbert stressed the fragility of the environment while trying to remove invasive phragmites, and cautioned that timing is crucial in the battle.

“You should not be out there when the birds are nesting, because birds will nest in the edges of phragmites. So there’s a migratory bird that… You can’t be out there cutting phragmites when the fish are spawning. 

“See, we can’t actually start our work in these coastal wetlands until July 15,” Gilbert stated. “You have a very, very narrow window of opportunity to do this work, and whoever’s doing this work has to know what they’re doing so they don’t do more harm than good to the wildlife who are eking out an existence in the phragmites because that’s the only habitat they have left.”

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Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Derek Howard, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Derek Howard covers Midland and Penetanguishene area civic issues under the Local Journalism Initiative, which is funded by the Government of Canada.
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