information on the biology of species and the ecology of habitats found around the coasts and seas of the British Isles

Common reed (Phragmites australis)

Distribution data supplied by the Ocean Biogeographic Information System (OBIS). To interrogate UK data visit the NBN Atlas.
Only coastal and marine records shown



A tall reed with annual cane-like (round and hollow) stems up to 4 m in height, usually ca 2 m but occasionally less than 1m high. Forms beds with an extensive system of perennial rhizomes. Leaf blades are flat, ca 3-45 mm wide, usually 15-30 mm, tapering to long slender points. Leaves arranged alternately. Leaves are attached to the stem by a smooth sheath, bearing prominent wing-like extensions at the leaf base, with a fringe of fine hairs next to the stem. Flowers borne on a very large, many branched inflorescence 20-60 cm in length and usually purple in colour. Flowers arranged in spikelets, 10-15 mm in length, composed of 1-6 flowers. The small branches between the flowers bear conspicuous long, white silky hairs. The spikelet bears unequal sized scales (glumes) at its base. The lower scale (or casing) of the floret is larger than the upper scale. The flower is composed of a hairless ovary, bearing two scales, with 3 pollen bearing stamens, except in the lowest floret which has 1-3 stamens.

Recorded distribution in Britain and Ireland

Common throughout the British Isles, especially in the south and east but more scattered in the north and west (only coastal records shown on map).

Global distribution

Cosmopolitan from Finnmark Norway, south to Africa. Uncommon in tropical Africa and recorded from America south to the Amazon basin. Recorded as non-native in New Zealand, Australia and Polynesia.


Forms extensive stands on mud or in shallow water in marshes, fens, bogs, and the edges of shallow lakes, salt marshes and estuaries.

Depth range


Identifying features

  • A tall reed up to 4m high above water level with an extensive rhizome system.
  • Stems round and hollow.
  • Leaves attached to stem by a smooth sheath with a fringe of hairs next to stem.
  • Flowers borne on a very long, many branched inflorescence, purple in colour.
  • Branches between florets bear long, white, silky hairs.

Additional information

Phragmites australis is a characteristic tall reed with a large purple inflorescence, however, accurate identification requires an examination of the structure of the inflorescence and flowers (for details see Haslam, 1972; Stace, 1999). The common reed is harvested primarily for use in thatching in Britain but has numerous uses worldwide (Haslam, 1972). Phragmites australis is the dominant species in reedbeds, a UK BAP habitat, and amongst the most important habitat for birds in the UK such as the bittern, the reed bunting and the marsh harrier (Anon, 1995; Hawke & José, 1996).

Listed by

- none -

Further information sources

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  1. Anonymous, 1995. Reedbeds. A costed Habitat Action Plan. In Biodiversity: The UK Steering Group Report - Volume II: Action Plans (The UK Biodiversity Steering Group), pp. 230-232., London: HMSO

  2. Cronquist, A., 1988. The evolution and classification of flowering plants (2nd edn). New York: New York Botanical Garden.

  3. Haslam, S.M., 1972. Biological flora of the British Isles. Phragmites communis Trin. Journal of Ecology, 60, 585-610.

  4. Hawke, C.J. & José, P.V., 1996. Reedbed management for commercial and wildlife interests. Sandy, Bedfordshire: Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

  5. National Biodiversity Network (NBN) Atlas website. Available from:  Accessed 01 April 2017

  6. Stace, C., 1999. Field flora of the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


This review can be cited as:

Tyler-Walters, H., 2003. Phragmites australis Common reed. In Tyler-Walters H. and Hiscock K. (eds) Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Reviews, [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 18-08-2018]. Available from:

Last Updated: 07/10/2003