Reed Grass – Phragmites SPP.: Edible & Medicinal Uses of the Roasted Marshmallow of Wild Plants

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In Chippewa, abo’djigun meaning “something turned out or over”, reed grass has turned me over too. It changed my completely black-and-white thinking about herbicides. It’s hard to tell our native reed grass from the invasive European subspecies, and it may be hard to tell if a patch has been treated. It’s a tread with caution sort of edible and medicinal wild plant.

Reed grass (phragmites SPP.) was rare and noted in two locations when Haliburton Flora was compiled, and it’s listed as phragmites australis. Recently, subspecies is important. It was the native common reed (phragmites australis subsp. americanus).

Now, European Reed (phragmites australis  subsp. australis) is here, and this is a problem. It wipes out native plants where it spreads. It’s up there with Japanese knotweed and garlic mustard in colonizing wild spaces. I’ve tagged this post with both native and invasive to cover them both, and I’m excluding gardening tags like “full sun” out of caution.

And of course it’s mainly spread by human activity, as many seeds along the highway are (why busy roadsides tend to be a nonnative salad bar). ATVs and boats spread it too. The road salt we dump on the road primes and pollutes wetlands to its advantage, killing native plants while giving the invasive phragmites an environment they thrive in. You can find more details on the destruction here.

You can become a phragmite fighter in Ontario here. It’s a program from The Land Between. They’ll train you to identify phragmites in an online training workshop and your important task will be to identify and report plots of invasive phragmites.

Here’s another way to learn:

This is the plant that made me look at herbicides as not entirely a black-and-white issue! Because in some cases a plant is so invasive it’s worse than herbicides. And the herbicide is not dumped on, but painted on the individual phragmites, when done conscientiously. Although I’m not saying that is the ultimate final answer. It beats giving up, and the space can heal and be filled with native plants again.

Invasive plants are just now getting attention as they wipe out huge swaths of native plants and wildlife. There are research symposiums, studies, all manner of opinions out there. There’s a lot of debate out there too.

There are groups trying alternative methods – goats for instance!

But as it stands, phragmites are extremely hard to kill or control without the use of herbicides. Cutting it will reduce the spread. Digging up the roots may encourage it to spread.

If you use reed grass for food or medicinally, make sure you don’t spread the roots or seeds to new areas. And be aware some plots may be treated with herbicides.

Reed Grass - Phragmites SPP.
Reed Grass – Phragmites SPP.

Edible Uses of Reed Grass

Reed seed heads in late summer and fall can be ground into flour for porridge, used as a thickening agent in stews, or even used for breading fish. Be sure to carefully transport these if they are not the native reed, or if you’re unsure.

New spring shoots growing up beside last years shoots can be eaten raw or cooked. Fresh fall or early spring roots and underground stems can be ground for flour same as cattail root. Note disturbing the roots of the invasive species can boost its growth. Careful you don’t dig up flag roots in process too. It may be best to stick to the new shoots.

The sweet hardened sap from wounded stems can be eaten fresh or toasted near a fire, like a marshmallow. You can also dry whole stems in the sun, beat them and sift out the stringy flour, dry that out and grind it into a powder. Moistening the resulting powder with water and slowly roasting it is another way to make a toasted reed marshmallow.

Medicinal Uses of Reed Grass

Reed grass is primarily said to support these body systems:

  • Digestive

Medicinal tags include Antiemetic and Diuretic. See Medicinal tag key for more information.

Common usage includes a root juice decoction to stop vomiting and diarrhea, especially used for sea food poisoning.

Reed Grass - Phragmites SPP.
Reed Grass – Phragmites SPP.

Alternative Uses of Phragmites

A light green dye can be obtained from the flowerheads.

Hollow stems can be used as straws. Some types of reed make decent shafts for arrows. The shoots can be weaved into mats, baskets, fish traps, thatching for roofs, rafts, the list goes on.

Some inventive students have made them into hair extensions. (There’s a paywall to read the article!)

Growing Phragmites SPP. (susp. Americanus)

Make sure you plant native if you wish to add reed grass to your property – phragmites australis subsp. americanus. It can help build up a wet bank, and is useful for flood control.

Absolutely complain if you see invasive phragmites being sold. It is against the law to buy, sell, trade or purposely grow invasive phragmites. Report it immediately to the NDMNRF TIPS line at 1-877-TIPS-MNR (847-7667) toll-free anytime. You can also call Crime Stoppers anonymously at 1-800-222-TIPS (8477).

Report sightings in the wild to the Invading Species Hotline at 1-800-563-7711 or EDDMapS Ontario. Or locally, to The Land Between.

And here’s the OIPC pamphlet:


Wild patches may be treated with Glyphosate / Roundup.

And the Usual Cautions:

1) Most medicinal herbs, if edible, are meant to be eaten in moderation, even sparingly. Some require extra preparation. Tannins are toxic if consumed in excess.

2) People can be allergic or sensitive to nearly any plant; try new herbs one at a time at your own risk. For instance, saponins commonly cause stomach upset.

3) For medicinal use, I must recommend receiving a diagnosis and working with a reputed health care provider. I generally do not post specific treatments and dosages because I think that is best between you and your health care provider, and ideally monitored.

4) Anyone pregnant, nursing, or taking prescription drugs should talk to a health care professional before adding new food items to their diet.

5) Many plants have look-a-likes, and sometimes they are poisonous.

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Many informative files available at

How Indians Use Wild Plants for Food, Medicine & Crafts (Native American)

Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs

Field Guide to North American Edible Wild Plants (Out of Print)

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