Phalaris arundinacea L.

Common Name: Reed canarygrass

Synonyms and Other Names:

Reed canarygrass, canary grass, ribbon grass, gardener’s garters, speargrass, Phalaroides arundinacea (L.), Typhoides arundinacea, Phalaroides arundinacea spp. japonica (Steud.) Tzvelv, Phalaroides arundinacea var. picta (L.) Tzvelev

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Identification: Morphology varies based on the characteristics of the habitat it is found it (Kurtz and Hansen 2014). General characteristics include large, coarse grass with an erect, hairless stem and gradually tapering leaf blades. Blades are flat and have a rough texture on both surfaces. The lead ligule is membranous and long. The compact panicles are erect or slightly spreading (depending on the plant's reproductive stage), and range from 7 to 40 centimeters long with branches from 5 to 30 centimeters in length. Single flowers occur in dense clusters in May to mid-June. Flowers are green to purple at first and change to beige over time. This grass is one of the first to sprout in spring, and forms a thick rhizome system that dominates the subsurface soil. Seeds are shiny brown in color (WI DNR 2009).

Size: Ranges from 0.6 to 2.8 meters in height. Leaf blades are 8 to 25 centimeters long and 65 to 190 mm in width.

Native Range: Phalaris arundinacea is a circumboreal species (Larson 1993). In North America, this species is common throughout most of southern Alaska and Canada, as well as all but the southeastern portion of the U.S. (Hitchcock et al. 1969). There is both confusion and controversy surrounding the native range of reed canarygrass in North America (Waggy 2010). This species has both native and introduced populations in close proximity since it is both native to North America and has had European transplants cultivated for agricultural use (Waggy 2010). In general, Phalaris arundinacea is treated as a native species in North America (Waggy 2010) and in the Great Lakes region with gene influence from non-indigenous populations (Huffman et al. 1986, Reuter 1986, Howe 2000, Maurer et al. 2003, Czarapata 2005).

Its native range has been hard to decipher until recently when DNA samples confirmed the presence of distinct populations present in North America that are not present in Europe or Asia (Jakubowski et al. 2013). Jakubowski et al. (2013) solidified Phalaris arundinacea as a native to North America from Alaska through New Brunswick, Canada.

Great Lakes Nonindigenous Occurrences: In North America, native populations without exposure to gene flow from nonnative strains most likely does not exist (Waggy 2010). It is nearly impossible to tell native and nonnative populations from one another (Merigliano and Lesica 1998). Recent developments in genetic techniques have allowed researchers to tell what portion of genes are native and nonnative for a population (Jakubowski et al. 2013). Nonnative gene flow was made possible when European and Asian varieties were brought to North America for agriculture cultivation (Hitchcock 1951).

Invasive populations are composed of either nonnative strains or hybrids between nonnative and native strains (Dore and McNeill 1980, Maurer and Zedler 2002, Merigliano and Peter 1998, Reuter 1986, Swink 1974). Ontario researchers observe both noninvasive and invasive populations of reed canarygrass along the shore of the northern Great Lakes, upper Ottawa river, and upper French river as well as in anthropogenically altered landscapes (Dore and McNeill 1980).

Table 1. Great Lakes region nonindigenous occurrences, the earliest and latest observations in each state/province, and the tally and names of HUCs with observations†. Names and dates are hyperlinked to their relevant specimen records. The list of references for all nonindigenous occurrences of Phalaris arundinacea are found here.

Full list of USGS occurrences

State/ProvinceFirst ObservedLast ObservedTotal HUCs with observations†HUCs with observations†
IN201120154Little Calumet-Galien; St. Joseph; St. Joseph; St. Marys
MI1838201963Au Gres-Rifle; Au Sable; Betsie-Platte; Betsy-Chocolay; Black; Black-Macatawa; Black-Presque Isle; Boardman-Charlevoix; Brule; Carp-Pine; Cedar-Ford; Cheboygan; Clinton; Dead-Kelsey; Detroit; Escanaba; Fishdam-Sturgeon; Flint; Great Lakes Region; Huron; Kalamazoo; Kawkawlin-Pine; Keweenaw Peninsula; Lake Erie; Lake Huron; Lake Michigan; Lake St. Clair; Lake Superior; Little Calumet-Galien; Lone Lake-Ocqueoc; Lower Grand; Manistee; Manistique River; Menominee; Michigamme; Millecoquins Lake-Brevoort River; Muskegon; Northeastern Lake Michigan; Northwestern Lake Huron; Ontonagon; Ottawa-Stony; Pere Marquette-White; Pigeon-Wiscoggin; Pine; Raisin; Saginaw; Saginaw; Shiawassee; Southcentral Lake Superior; Southeastern Lake Michigan; Southwestern Lake Huron; St. Clair; St. Clair-Detroit; St. Joseph; St. Marys; Sturgeon; Tacoosh-Whitefish; Tahquamenon; Thornapple; Thunder Bay; Tittabawassee; Upper Grand; Waiska
MN194020186Baptism-Brule; Beartrap-Nemadji; Beaver-Lester; Cloquet; Lake Superior; St. Louis
NY1895201516Black; Buffalo-Eighteenmile; Chaumont-Perch; Grass; Irondequoit-Ninemile; Lake Ontario; Lower Genesee; Oak Orchard-Twelvemile; Oneida; Oswegatchie; Salmon-Sandy; Saranac River; Seneca; Southwestern Lake Ontario; St. Lawrence; Upper Genesee
OH2010202012Ashtabula-Chagrin; Auglaize; Black-Rocky; Blanchard; Cedar-Portage; Cuyahoga; Grand; Huron-Vermilion; Lake Erie; Lower Maumee; Sandusky; Tiffin
PA201220121Lake Erie
VT187820032Lake Champlain; St. Francois River
WI1938201921Bad-Montreal; Beartrap-Nemadji; Black-Presque Isle; Brule; Door-Kewaunee; Duck-Pensaukee; Fox; Lake Michigan; Lake Superior; Lake Winnebago; Lower Fox; Manitowoc-Sheboygan; Menominee; Milwaukee; Northwestern Lake Michigan; Oconto; Peshtigo; Pike-Root; St. Louis; Upper Fox; Wolf

Table last updated 12/9/2022

† Populations may not be currently present.

* HUCs are not listed for areas where the observation(s) cannot be approximated to a HUC (e.g. state centroids or Canadian provinces).

Ecology: Phalaris arundinacea grows in saturated or nearly saturated soils but not where standing water persists for extended periods of time. While it doesn’t originally establish in areas inundated with water, Phalaris arundinacea can tolerate periods of inundation once established (Weinmann et al. 1984).

Phalaris arundinacea occurs in many wetland communities including wet meadows, prairie potholes, marshes, riparian areas, and peatlands (Waggy 2010). Reed canarygrass spreads quickly by rhizomes (Hitchcock 1951) which originate below ground. They begin growing in early spring (April) and decline in mid-August (Hutchinson 1992). Large quantities of pollen are produced for wind pollination (Merigliano and Lesica 1998) and flowering increases throughout the season and with longer daylight hours. Seed dispersal is passive and does form a soil seed bank (Preuninger and Umbanhower 1994); seeds remain viable in the soil for more than one year (Leck 1996).

Means of Introduction: Human activity best explains the range expansion of Phalaris arundinacea in North America. It has been cultivated for use as hay and for forage for livestock (Hitchcock 1951). It has been extensively cultivated and is considered good forage for livestock, particularly cattle but its ability to survive under continuous grazing is questionable (Kilbride and Paveglio 1999). Reed canarygrass can be used for erosion control, shoreline stabilization, and pollutant filtration (Marten 1985). In the past, it has been recommended for revegetation of disturbed sites (e.g. pipeline corridors (Cody et al. 2000), firelines (Bolstad 1971), and recently burned sites (Slinkard et al. 1970)). Future use in revegetation projects will likely be reconsidered since reed canarygrass can dominate a site and almost all populations have some nonnative genes (Howe 1999). This species has extended its native range throughout North America by taking advantage of disturbed wetland habitats (Zedler and Kercher 2004). Once Phalaris arundinacea invades, it establishes dense, single species stands that pose a threat to wetlands since it grows so quickly that competing species are inhibited and eliminated (Apfelbaum and Sams 1987).

Status: Established. Phalaris arundinacea spreads by seed, stem fragments, and rhizomes making this species extremely difficult to contain. In established areas, abundance of Phalaris arundinacea increases as abundance and biodiversity of native species decreases.

Great Lakes Impacts: Phalaris arundinacea has a high potential environmental impact in the Great Lakes outside of its native range.
Current research suggests that Phalaris arundinacea is a superior competitor for nutrients and light with native species (Kercher 2007). Reed canarygrass displaces rare plants (Peter 1997) and native plants. If established in an area for a long period of time, seed banks are devoid of native species (Apfelbaum and Sams 1987).  It can outcompete other invasive species (e.g. purple loosestrife). Reed canarygrass can exploit disturbances due to its genetic and morphological plasticity (Kercher 2007) and is able to hybridize with native strains (Lavergne and Molofsky 2004). 

Lower soil insect diversity and trophic groups of insects have been reported in reed canarygrass monocultures (Lavergne and Molofsky 2004). Displacement of woody vegetation can reduce the number of arthropods foraging in riparian areas which can then cause bottom up effects in the food web (Miller et al. 2008). 

Carbon and nitrogen sequestration are lower in monospecific reed canarygrass stands than in diverse native wet prairie communities (Herr-Turoff and Zedler 2005).

Phalaris arundinacea has a moderate potential socio-economic impact in the Great Lakes outside its native range.
Pollen from dense stands can inflare allergies and asthma for human health. There is potential for Pharlaris arundinacea can constrict waterways which could result in closure of water for recreational activities. Silt deposits, emergent stems, and leaves of reed canarygrass reduce the volume of water that a channel can carry and impede water flow (Comes et al. 1981). Phalaris arundinacea prevents forest regeneration and establishes thick monocultures in wetlands where it establishes reducing perceived aesthetics and natural value where it occurs.

Phalaris arundinacea has a low potential benefit impact in the Great Lakes outside its native range.
Phalaris arundinacea has been cultivated for hay and planted for livestock forage (Hitchcock 1951) which is how it was introduced to areas outside its native range. Phalaris arundinacea is more tolerant of wet conditions and drought than native species (Undersander et al. 1996). This suggest that use of native species would constitute a minor economic loss relative to the use of Phalaris arundinacea since native plants would be less tolerant of less than ideal water conditions. Phalaris arundinacea is the highest yield cool-season grass when fertilized (Undersander et al. 1996). This suggests that the use of other native grasses instead of Phalaris arundinacea would produce lower yield; however, how much lower and economic impact this would have is unknown.

Management: Regulations (pertaining to the Great Lakes region)
Phalaris arundinacea has no federal designation within the United States or Canada. The important economic use of Phalaris arundinacea in agriculture leads to it being unregulated in many states.

Wisconsin restricts this species’ use (NR 40); here it cannot be possessed, transported, transferred, or introduced without a permit. Wisconsin specifically restricts Phalaris arundinacea var. picta and other ornamental variegated varieties and cultivars but does not include the parent type- reed canary grass. This makes a distinction between the native and invasive Phalaris arundinacea with the native variety being unregulated.

Illlinois does not list Phalaris arundinacea on its “Aquatic Life Approved Species List” since some populations are native to Illinois. However, Illinois DNR does find this species needs to be restricted and finds it inappropriate for import, possession, or culture since it is an invasive species (Illinois DNR, pers. communication). Phalaris arundinacea is not listed in the Illinois Noxious Weed Act or the Illinois Exotic Weed act. However, it is managed across the state in natural areas and at restoration sites (Illinois DNR, pers. communication).

Other Great Lakes states monitor reed canarygrass and consider it an “invasive species” but do not have legislative restrictions on its movement. These include: Minnesota, Indiana, and Ohio. Currently, the Indiana Division of Entomology and Plant Pathology, which regulates plants in Indiana, is reviewing Phalaris arundinacea to consider restricting its transportation.

Phalaris arundinacea is not regulated federally in Canada or provincially in Ontario but is considered an invasive species (Anderson 2012).

Note: Check federal, state/provincial, and local regulations for the most up-to-date information.

Due to its ambiguous native status, management decisions to control populations of Phalaris arundinacea are dependent on the impact that it has in a given area (Waggy 2010).

Live willow stakes have been shown to reduce reed canarygrass growth if planted at appropriate densities (Kim et al. 2006).

Reed canarygrass grows back rapidly following manual removal with heavy equipment from rhizomes and seeds that remain in the soil (Apfelbaum and Sams n.d). Fire can control spread and keep from Phalaris arundinacea infestating wetlands but needs to be performed annually for five to six years before fully controlled (Lavergne and Molofsky 2006).

Exposure to 300ppm of boron causes complete tissue necrosis within three weeks once applied to reed canarygrass roots (Apfelbaum and Sams 1987).

Amitrol (4.5kg/ha plus ammonium thiocyanate at 4.1kg/ha) can reduce three week old seedlings by 94% but is not effective for seedlings older than three weeks (Comes et al. 1981). Glyphosate (1.1 kg/ha) has been shown to control five to ten week old seedlings (Comes et al. 1981). Dalapon and Amitrol-T when used together have controlled canarygrass in Montana for up to five years. Chemicals were most effective when used at flowering time (Apfelbaum and Sams 1987). Newbold (1975) found Dalapon and Paraquat, separate and mixed together, provided an effective “kill for one year”.

Herbicide treatments of imazapyr (Bahm et al. 2014) and sethoxydim (Annen et al. 2005) have proven to be effective at controlling reed canarygrass. Sethoxydim is a selective herbicide that kills most annual and perennial grasses (Annen et al. 2005).

Combination of chemical and physical removal methods need to be repeated for effective control and to prevent re-infestation (Kilbride and Paveglio 1999). Disking followed with chemical Rodeo application the following growing season had similar control compared to the most efficient treatments (Kilbride and Paveglio 1999). Control of reed canarygrass is most effective when employed as a long-term ecosystem-wide strategy approach (Waggy 2010).

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Author: Sturtevant, R., K. Dettloff, W. Conard, and Cayla Morningstar

Contributing Agencies:

Revision Date: 10/29/2021

Citation for this information:
Sturtevant, R., K. Dettloff, W. Conard, and Cayla Morningstar, 2022, Phalaris arundinacea L.: U.S. Geological Survey, Nonindigenous Aquatic Species Database, Gainesville, FL, and NOAA Great Lakes Aquatic Nonindigenous Species Information System, Ann Arbor, MI,, Revision Date: 10/29/2021, Access Date: 12/9/2022

This information is preliminary or provisional and is subject to revision. It is being provided to meet the need for timely best science. The information has not received final approval by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and is provided on the condition that neither the USGS nor the U.S. Government shall be held liable for any damages resulting from the authorized or unauthorized use of the information.