Biodiversity & Conservation

Common reed - Phragmites australis

Common reed

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Distribution map

Phragmites australis recorded (dark blue bullet) and expected (light blue bullet) distribution in Britain and Ireland (see below)

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Phragmites australis is not listed under any importance categories.

Taxonomy icon Taxonomy Taxon English term
Phylum Angiospermophyta Seagrass, tassel weeds, reeds, sea pink & grasses
Class Liliopsida
Authority (Cav.) Trin. ex Steudel
Recent synonyms Phragmites communis
Map icon 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).
Habitat information icon Habitat information Forms extensive stands on mud or in shallow water in marshes, fens, bogs, and the edges of shallow lakes, salt marshes and estuaries.
Text page icon Description 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.
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 icon 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).

This review can be cited as follows:

Dr Harvey Tyler-Walters 2003. Phragmites australis. Common reed. Marine Life Information Network: Biology and Sensitivity Key Information Sub-programme [on-line]. Plymouth: Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom. [cited 28/11/2015]. Available from: <>