On the way to just about any Vineyard beach for a stroll, you’re likely to come across phragmites, also known as the common reed. On a cool, early spring day, these thickly clustered, 12-foot-tall reeds stand like an invading army, frozen in time, their bushy plumes of seeds punctuating the skyline. Despite being twice my height, these invasive reeds are so common in marshy environments that I often walk past without noticing them. Experienced botanist Elizabeth (“Liz”) Loucks is quite the opposite.
Liz came to the Vineyard in 2005 to work as a land steward for the Nature Conservancy — her fourth appointment in an impressive succession of positions with the group. Last May, she started her current role at the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation as property manager, alongside fellow property manager Bill Bridwell. Together Loucks and Bridwell diligently monitor and maintain 20 miles of public paths across 74 Island properties conserved by Sheriff’s Meadow.
Last year, on the type of hot day in August we’re all daydreaming about now, Loucks was checking the public trails at the Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation’s Caroline Tuthill Preserve. The preserve is comprised of 150 acres just below Sengekontacket Pond, encompassing the majority of land between Beach Road to the east and Edgartown–Vineyard Haven road to the south. Looking out from a viewing platform along the trail, Loucks noticed a stand of phragmites close to the shore. “I thought it looked odd,” she said, and went to take a closer look.
Based on a handful of astute observations, Loucks had a hunch. She believed that the estimated 200-square-foot stand of noticeably shorter, red-colored stalks, were not the common, invasive type of phragmites (Phragmites australis) that has made its way up and down the East Coast, but were perhaps a rare native strain (Phragmites americanus) instead. Until this point, there were only 11 known populations of the native species in Massachusetts.
Loucks knew what features to look for in discerning whether this stand of phragmites was of interest. While non-native phragmites grow up to 12 feet, the native species grows to about eight feet, and has surprisingly bright red stems. The leaf color and angle are also different, to the trained eye, as are the size of the seed plumes at the top. “I was really excited,” Loucks said. “I took some samples and verified the botanical characteristics, and then I went ahead and contacted the state botanist.”
State botanist Robert (Bob) Wernerehl was eager to come take a look himself. “Discovery of this particular species is fairly uncommon,” he noted. “It’s about six to eight feet tall, and it’s hard to identify. There are six or seven features that distinguish native from non-native. They’re very close in appearance, so for that reason people don’t necessarily know if they’re seeing the native one. A lot of people see this large plant, and they don’t double-check to see if it could be the native one. That’s where Liz’s skill comes in. Liz is a really good Island botanist.”
Adam Moore, the executive director of Sheriff’s Meadow Foundation, had similar praise for Loucks: “Liz is a great botanist. She has a great skill, and keeps a lookout while she’s in the field for anything unusual, and that was the case here.” He attributed the find to two factors. First, the quality of observation by people like Loucks and her colleague Kristen Geagan, the foundation’s director of stewardship; and second, the large amount of conserved land on Martha’s Vineyard. Moore went on to say, “Sheriff’s Meadow and other conservation groups have conserved a lot of land on Martha’s Vineyard, so there is always the opportunity to look for rare plants and animals.”
Outside of conservation land, it is more difficult to make these discoveries, and thus harder to keep these rare populations protected. Loucks believes that it is probable that there are additional stands of native phragmites on the Island, noting, “We’ve heard it’s in Chilmark, we just don’t know where. We’re hoping that we can go explore next year; there’s just so much private property. It’s definitely probable that it is in other places on the Vineyard.”
Wernerehl intends to undergo the three- to four-year process of elevating native phragmites from its current listing on the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act state watch list to that of a species protected under the Federal Endangered Species Act. As he explained, “It’s a watch-listed plant, so my office — Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program — we track them, but we don’t protect them because of the current status. So for that reason we don’t have any say.” As Wernerehl described, protection status would make it possible for conservationists to “find a way to delineate and avoid any development that would endanger native phragmites. We would alter plans so that they wouldn’t conflict with the growth of the plant.”
Non-native, invasive phragmites poses a problem among conservationists and landowners because of its ability to spread quickly within marshes and wetlands, and block out all other plant species. As Wernerehl said, “Almost nothing else lives within a clump of non-native phragmites. Believe me, I’ve tried to walk through them looking for rare plant,s and there’s nothing.”
Being an invasive species also means that native animals are not adapted to live alongside it, and it therefore does not benefit local ecosystems. As Wernerehl described in his article published in Massachusetts Wildlife Magazine on this discovery, non-native phragmites often displaces native bird, reptile, and amphibian species. These stands are regularly treated with herbicides to limit population size and rapid spreading. Meanwhile, the native species does not spread aggressively, nor does it grow as close together, meaning that other plants and animals can live alongside and within a cluster of native phragmites. Loucks noted, “There are native species that eat [native phragmites]. It’s widely spaced, so there is much more diversity of other grass species growing beneath it.”
One of the reasons that native phragmites is so rare is that the non-native species will often crowd it out. While these plants produce seeds, the majority of phragmites reproduction is, as Wernerehl noted, similar to one of the ways that aspen trees regenerate: the root systems form thick subsurface mats and send up new shoots with identical genetic material. These new shoots are called clones. Wernerehl said, “I’ve only actually seen one or two other populations [of native phragmites]. The population in Provincetown is about the same size [as the one discovered by Liz]. We don’t know exactly if these populations are one clone or if there are several plants with many stems.” As Loucks noted, knowing about the genetic diversity of a naturally occuring stand would be useful for propagating successful new stands of the native variety in the future. In the meantime, Moore and Loucks are committed to maintaining and promoting the stand of native Phragmites americanus on the Caroline Tuthill property.
If you are interested in seeing the Caroline Tuthill property yourself, the public walking trails are open from sunup to sundown, and there will be a special guided walk on Saturday, May 18, from 10 am to 12 noon. For more information, visit sheriffsmeadow.org/activities/walks-bike-rides.