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Reed canary grass

Phalaris arundinacea L. (Family: Poaceae)


Reed canary grass is a cool-season, sod-forming, perennial wetland grass native to the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and North America that aggressively invades disturbed areas. It is one of the first grasses to sprout in the spring, and it forms a thick rhizome system that dominates the subsurface soil. It can reproduce by seed or by sprouting from its underground rootstalks. Its spread is promoted by ditching of wetlands, stream channeling, swamp deforestation, sedimentation, overgrazing, and intentional planting. There is a cultivar of reed canary grass that is sold in the landscaping industry as “ribbon grass” or “gardener’s garters,” the seeds of which are occasionally used in bird seed mixtures.


Also known as: ribbon grass, gardener’s garters


Origin: Reed canary grass is native to both Eurasia and North America. The vast majority of the reed canary grass found in the U.S. is derived from the Eurasian ecotype, which is believed to be far more aggressive. It has been selected for its vigor and planted since the 1800s for forage and erosion control. It is still being planted on steep slopes and banks of ponds and created wetlands.



  • Reed canary grass stems are large, erect, hairless, and can reach 2-9 feet in height.

  • Leaves are 3-10 inches with flat blades that taper gradually and have a rough texture on both sides. They may be light green to straw-colored. The membrane where the blade and sheath meet is highly transparent.

  • Flowers appear in early summer and occur in densely clustered florets, which are green to purple at first and change to beige over time.

  • Shiny brown seeds ripen in late June and then shatter. They may be dispersed from one wetland to another by waterways, animals, people, or machines.

  • Reed canary grass can reproduce vegetatively through horizontal stems that grow beneath the soil surface, called rhizomes. They create a thick impenetrable mat at or directly below the soil surface.


Distribution: Reed canary grass is now present in almost all states. It can invade most types of wetlands and thrives in ditches, levees, shallow marshes, wet prairies, stream banks, fens, and sedge meadows. It is frequently found in saturated soils, but it cannot survive extended periods in standing water. It does especially well in disturbed areas such as bergs and spoil piles.


Problem: As an aggressive invader, reed canary grass competes with native species for limited resources, reduces biodiversity, and can quickly form monotypic stands. These stands prove to be of little use to wildlife, as few species eat this grass, and it becomes so dense that it cannot provide nesting habitat for waterfowl and other native birds. Furthermore, it requires much of the soil moisture for its metabolic processes, which affects the hydraulic characteristics of the site by clogging shallow streams and ditches. Once established, it builds up a tremendous seed bank that can eventually erupt and recolonize treated sites.


Control: Reed canary grass can be hand pulled, mowed, burned, or chemically treated to control spread. A combination of these methods over a couple of years may be necessary to fully eliminate a stand. Chemical application may require several years of dutiful treatment to eliminate the species due to an abundant seed bank. When chemically treating areas near water, an approved aquatic herbicide labeled for reed canary grass must be used. In areas where the native seed bank may be depleted, reseeding of beneficial native plants may be necessary following the elimination of reed canary grass.


USE PESTICIDES WISELY: Always read the entire pesticide label carefully, follow all mixing and application instructions and wear all recommended personal protective gear and clothing. Contact your state department of agriculture for any additional pesticide use requirements, restrictions or recommendations.

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