Down East 2013 ©
The clouds of smoke rising over several sections of the Rachel Carson National Wildlife Refuge in southern Maine this month are the latest battle in the preserve’s war against the common reed, a European invader that threatens to push out native plant and animal species in a preserve dedicated to their survival. Biologists are burning ten to thirty acres of land within the refuge in an attempt to limit the attractive but unwanted weed’s territory.
“The best we can hope for is to bring it under control,” allows Graham R. Taylor, the reserve’s assistant manager. “It’s a very stubborn plant, and reducing its spread is about as effective as we can really hope to be.” Last fall, a contractor sprayed a powerful herbicide on stands of the reed in Biddeford, Kennebunkport, and Wells. Burning the plots this spring will, Taylor hopes, give native species a chance to sprout before the reed recovers. He emphasizes that aggressive control measures are vital. Half-hearted attempts will only encourage the weedy reed, which can reach ten to twelve feet high, to grow back even more vigorously.
Common reed first came to the East Coast in the days of sailing ships, probably as part of the mud and rocks used as ballast. Taylor says the Rachel Carson Refuge is relatively lucky in having such limited stands. “Farther down the coast, such as in New Jersey, you find stands that are hundreds of acres in size,” he notes. “We’re dealing with a lot of smaller sites here, but we want to catch the reed now so it won’t take over the way it has in other places.”
The reed’s distinctive feathery plume is often cut by passersby and used in dried flower arrangements. Taylor suspects that practice has helped the plant spread as old arrangements are discarded on fertile ground beyond backyard fences.
“It grows to such a density that it crowds out all other plants, just like bamboo,” he explains. “Where you might have had a site that contained fifty plant species and fifty animal species, once the reed moves in you have a site that has one plant species and perhaps six animal species.” That’s the biological equivalent of a desert, an ironic situation in a refuge dedicated to a woman who worked to preserve the world’s natural diversity.
(Published April 1999)