Wednesday, January 14, 2015

uses for phragmites

Phragmites (pronounced "frag-my-tees" or \ frag-ˈmī-ˌtēz \, pronounced, here commonly called "frag") is a fast growing perennial wetland grass native to Eurasia and Africa that is now established throughout the world including my own region of southern Ontario, Canada. Phragmites thrives in roadside ditches as pictured here near Limehouse, Ontario and along waterways and freshwater coasts. Here it is considered an invasive pest with no uses, to be eradicated if possible. But it does have uses.

(click on pics to enlarge) I was surprised to learn that phragmites stalks are very desirable materials to be used for roof thatching, to build roofs with a claimed life of 60 to 80 years! Thatched roofs are not at all common in Canada but are used in similar climates in northern Europe (like Finland) where the reed is also plentiful.

This excellent video from the COFREEN project describes the harvesting and use of phragmites for roofing, insulation and heating fuel.

Phragmites australis is also known as "water reed", "common reed" or "Norfolk Reed". Knowing these alternate names is important when looking for information about the thatching craft or phrag info generally.

In the UK, thatching is described as a growing business with the number of thatchers having increased from about 200 to about 1500 over the past 45 years (info previously at now gone, website seems under construction "coming soon"). You can locate UK thatchers.

In this classic text "The Thatcher's Craft" Rural Development Commission, London, 1960, the specific use of phragmites (as "water reed") is covered in detail. (a previous link to the entire 234 page text is now gone. Now I can only find this 22 page version)

In the the Wikipedia entry for phragmites, uses are covered in section 6 including phytoremediation water treatment. Additional uses are as a craft material (for basket and mat making, paper, musical instruments), fences, cattle pens, fishing poles, spears, food (both human and animal) and bee keeping.

The Purdue Crop Index on phragmites gives additional uses for cattle grazing, as feedstock for rayon and board making, "a fine fibrous material suitable as a filler in upholstery", rope making, partitions and brooms. Food and folk medicine uses are also described.

Use of chopped, freshly harvested phragmites for biogas production with the by-product (sludge) spread on farmland in Sweden is described in this book.

Phragmites is harvested and sold commercially in China, presumably for roofing.

When you have lemons, make lemonade!

Thank you for your interest.

George Plhak
Lion's Head, Ontario, Canada

Update April 7 2015: Phrag seen in healthy patches along my route to southern Ontario. These shots of phragmities are near Pearson Airport, Toronto. Along the west Dixie Road side.
I have not seen any of the ultra tall variety yet.
Update Feb 24 2019: Search "biochar phragmites" to see recent work on producing Biochar from phragmites like this study (.pdf) from Western U in Canada

See additional notes in the comments below. Also minor edits and fixed some links above.