Janice Gilbert is hip deep in Lake Huron as she tears a long, reedy plant from the clutches of a machine that looks like a rake made of saws. On a cold, sunny Monday in late October, the wetland ecologist and phragmites specialist is helping the Lambton Shores Community Phragmites Group near Grand Bend test new equipment to hack and saw through the invasive plant dominating their shoreline. With any luck, it could be the next great weapon in the fight against an innocent-looking enemy: phragmites.
The phragmites tower two metres above the water as Gilbert and her team guide their barge, which has a small engine on one end and two of the specialized rakes on the other, through the channel. Behind them, another barge three times its size collects the cut grass.
The group struggles to plow through the plants when the wind blows them off course. Getting into the water, the volunteers push the barge back against the wind.
Gilbert refuses to give up on the new machine. “With some minor fine-tuning, we’re going to be okay,” she says as she wades toward dry land to regroup.
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Back on shore Nancy Vidler, the group’s chair, says tourists and visitors can’t see the extent of the phragmites on their properties. Around the corner, her red truck seems to be trying to spread the message. Its licence plate reads like a warning: PHRAGLDY.
Phragmites australis, also known as the European common reed or “phrag,” first appeared along the St. Lawrence River in the early 1900s. By 2005, Agriculture and Agrifood Canada had named it the country’s worst invasive plant. It’s now found in wetlands across southwestern Ontario and is slowly making its way north to the Georgian Bay and Manitoulin Island regions.
It isn't confined to wetlands. Many Ontarians will have seen the tall, billowy plant swaying in the ditches along the 400-series highways. And once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.
Phrag is swallowing the Great Lakes Basin. The perennial plant survives winters by storing nutrients in its rhizomes — essentially underground stems. These can grow unfettered for metres, establishing networks from which new shoots grow to create a dense monoculture that obliterates wildlife habitat and creates what Gilbert describes as dead zones. The stands can become so thick that deer and turtles are unable to pass through. Phragmites also secrete a toxin in the soil, killing native plants.
Traditionally, phrag has spread when high winds or water move fragments of it to a new bank where it can settle and grow.
But now heavy equipment is spreading it to non-infested areas much farther away, Gilbert says. “When trucks are parked in infested ditches, they pick up a lot of viable plant parts: rhizomes, stems, seeds. At the next location, [workers] spread the plant around without knowing it. We want it off the roads so it doesn’t get into our natural areas. Once it’s there it’s so hard to control.”
While native plants usually have competitors or herbivores that keep their numbers stable and maintain balance within an ecosystem, Gilbert says there are no natural checks in our system for phrag.
That creates problems for farmers whose drainage ditches are overgrown with the reeds, causing their fields to flood and damaging crops.
Kyle Borrowman, terrestrial invasive species outreach liaison at the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, says phrag can deter waterfowl from using wetlands. He also points to an incident in Utah, where two hunters got trapped in a particularly thick swath of phragmites. They ran out of water and had to call for help. It took the sheriff’s search-and-rescue team, wildlife officers, and a helicopter crew more than four hours to get them out safely.
Though no one has gotten lost in Lambton Shores, landowners have seen their waterfront change drastically. Michelle Hay, a local cottager, says she once had an unobstructed view of the lake, but the channel that leads to open water is now lined with phrag.
“We’re doing the best we can, but this isn’t going to cut it,” she says, pointing to the plant. She speaks both literally and figuratively. Members of her community take turns going out every couple of weeks to cut, roll, and burn the phrag, or to spray it with herbicides. They’re a cheerful and energetic bunch, but theirs is a never-ending battle.
Many local groups, like Georgian Bay Forever, try to cut or mow the plant into submission. Its community-based volunteers, or “Phragbusters,” selectively cut small patches of the plant each summer. They’ve had success in smaller stands, leaving native plants intact.
Back in Lambton Shores, the group’s new barge aims to speed up the progress in larger stands.
Backpack herbicide sprayers have also been used, but only in dry areas: in Ontario, herbicides are not approved for use over water. “In the U.S., they’ve been dealing with phrag on the eastern seaboard and along the Great Lakes for decades,” Gilbert says. “They use herbicides which are safe for wet sites.”
Gilbert knows that, as a wetland ecologist, it seems odd for her to advocate the use of herbicides. But she says phrag is the bigger threat. And though the herbicide will kill everything, the native plants will eventually grow back.
This year, provincial and conservation partners successfully obtained an emergency use permit from the Pest Management Regulatory Agency. In September, they sprayed 500 hectares of phragmites by helicopter — 100 in Rondeau Provincial Park and 400 in Long Point. The team is now monitoring the effects of that work.
For all their efforts, those facing phrag every day insist public awareness is both their biggest priority and their greatest challenge.
“A lot of people don’t know that the grass growing along the side of the road shouldn’t be there,” Gilbert says. “People think it’s pretty. They don’t know the issues it’s creating.”
Tina Knezevic is currently completing a journalism fellowship at the Munk School of Global Affairs.
This story has been updated from its original version which incorrectly stated that Janice Gilbert was the founder of the Lambton Shores Community Phragmites Group instead of the Ontario Phragmites Working Group. It has also been updated to reflect that provincial and conservation partners were primarily responsible for the emergency use permit for herbicide.