Common Beauty


IMG00031-20100404-1154You are now looking at one of the great joys of my life, an eight-foot tall stand of common reed at my place in the country. It sits in a boggy spot at the edge of my lawn and gives us incredible privacy from the road.

It's one of a number of politically incorrect plants installed here long ago.  At least, I'm assuming it was deliberately introduced back when an ability to naturalize was a desirable trait in a beautiful plant.  But it could be a native stand that looks organized because it's been controlled so long by mowing.

Common reed really illustrates how tortured the natives versus invasives debate can be.  That's because one common reed subspecies is native, another is introduced, and they are barely distinguishable. The University of Connecticut's Invasive Plant Atlas of New England says of the common reed, "Unfortunately, some non-native strains of this plant have also made
their way here, and it is suspected that these strains are the ones that
have exhibited invasive tendencies."

That sounds like a political position more than science to me.

Here's another fact-sheet on common reed, this one by the National Park Service, that is a masterpiece of ambivalence. Can it be invasive if it's also native?

I don't just love my common reed because it hides me from the few cars that pass my place every day. I love it because it is teeming with noisy life. The birdsong from these reeds at dusk is so loud that it often interrupts a dinner-table conversation hundreds of feet away. I like to stand in front of these reeds at that time of day and listen to the conversations taking place within the placid-looking mass of stems.  There are so many whistles and trills, it sounds like a thousand R2D2s all going off a once.

There are not just birds in there, either. There are rustling sounds at ground level, too–deer, ducks, turtles, muskrats, who knows–so many, that standing in front of the wall of stems is like standing in front of a heavy curtain with the main hall of Grand Central Station on the other side. 

In a spot that otherwise would be a less life-affirming kind of monoculture, a soggy lawn, I think it is just fantastic.


  1. On a human scale nature paints with a very wide brush. What to us may be a monoculture the size of two suburban plots, to nature is the right plant in the right place. Nature’s canvas is immense compared to out tiny view.

    So yes natives can be invasive when the definition of that word is seen in that light. Here on our 11.5 acres of this mountain Clematis virginiana and Impatiens pallida, both natives, are aggressive, invasive thugs attempting the takeover of of several acres, each in their preferred conditions.

    Are they invasive on Hebo Mountain as a whole? No. The conditions vary too much.

    The first person who complains about your reed should cough up the dough for a genetic test to determine if it is a foreign invader that needs to be eliminated or a beautiful stand of nature’s finest handiwork.

  2. I do think often the furor over native versus foreign can get extreme, but there are exceptions, such as an alternate Dutchman’s Pipe (A. elegans vs. native A. tagala) which kill swallowtails, though they look virtually the same.

  3. Was this what you were thinking of when you were comparing the California coast with a New York meadow?
    Yes, it is so much more beautiful .
    ( she said with a wicked smile and a wink )

    Happy Spring

  4. The difference between the native Clematis virginiana and its “invasive” cousin, Clematis terniflora escapes me. They’re both pretty aggressive (and relatively harmless) in my landscape and seem to get along fine with each other. It also seems that one person’s “invasive species” is another’s “naturalized wildflower” – see Dames Rocket, Hesperis matronalis, and Queen Anne’s lace, for example. A lot of this stuff is too subjective for objective definitions. And I enjoy wineberries too much to put them in the invasive species category, no matter what the Parks Service says.

  5. Oh, yes, Michelle D. And I will soon post even more photos of my country place, and possibly you will understand me even less!

    It has nothing going for it except a profound sense of peace–and super-fertile soil. And to me, those are the two most beautiful possible qualities in a landscape.

  6. What you enjoy, all the rustle of unknown critters in your mini cane brake, totally freaks out some people . Rats!! Snakes!! Bugs!! Giant mutant whatever that will eat my little fifi or fluffy or first born child. These are the people that want a gulf course like lawn and individually placed sheared shrubs. No wildlife. How boring. I like your scenery over California coast which falls into (for me) the catagory of nice place to visit, wouldn’t want to live there.

  7. Yeah. . . I know what you mean, Michele. I’m sort of scratching my head on this one. The two types of Phragmites are genetic variants on the same species, and it sounds like the non-native one flourishes in areas where pollution is already stressing the native plants. I don’t have the book at hand, but if I remember correctly, in the book Bringing Nature Home, there is information on the significant difference in biodiversity between stands of the native and non-native varieties.
    Ultimately, I put this one in the same category as poison ivy: a plant that has risen to destructive potential due to changes in the landscape caused by humans. Whether it is native or not, it is a problem plant. But the solution likely doesn’t rest in killing the plant, but in changing how we treat (and mistreat) our landscapes.

  8. I’m not a fan of invasive “exotic” plants. While some can be harmless others can cause a lot of problems. In Northern California the biggest problem plant right now IMHO is Eucalyptus. It pushes out the native oak woodlands. Other plants have a heard time growing under them. They are HUGE fire hazards (they don’t just burn, they explode), they are shallow rooted and fall often, causing a huge hazard next to roadways (there is actually a highway here that has “Falling Trees” signs on it). My other beef is with the nearly complete destruction of native grassland, but that battle was lost a long time ago with the Spaniards. Before them we weren’t the “Golden State.” The drought tolerant plants allowed for green hills all year.

  9. D.I.F. – Eucalyptus beats out even star thistle for biggest problem ?? Not that I’m defending those messy, fire-prone trees, but star thistle isn’t useful for anything !

  10. In the woodlands around me it’s really the battle of the invasives, with native plants not having a chance – in other words, not being sustainable. And if they COULD beat out English ivy, five-leaf akebia and the other nonnatives, the deer prefer them.

    I’m just trying to keep vines off the trees and make sure the ground’s covered with *something* – to prevent soil erosion down the hillside.

  11. I find that the native/non-native debate has been vastly over-hyped by people with political agendas and chips on their shoulders that don’t necessarily understand biology. It could be argued that at one time one of our “natives” was an invader and eventually came to dominate a niche based on a series of advantageous circumstances.

    Obviously you don’t want your neighbor’s rampant ivy or clematis taking seed in your yard, but for the most part it’s no one’s business what grows in your yard but your own.

  12. In a word, yes. In Oklahoma, Juniperus virginiana, known as Eastern redcedar is a native which has gotten out of control because we’ve effectively stopped the burning of the prairie. Historic burns kept this tree in check, but now, it is taking over our state. So, in some cases, natives, when their habitat is changed, can become invasive. I can see why you like your common reed though.~~Dee

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