Phragmites, an invasive species of reed introduced to North America from England, is often seen as a monster because the grass stalks grow up to 18 feet tall and drive out native plants and wildlife.
But some scientists suggest the plant is more of a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, because while it is bad for plant and wildlife diversity it may be good at protecting shorelines from erosion caused by rising sea levels and climate change.
Patrick Megonigal, Deputy Director of the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, is studying the effects of rising carbon dioxide levels on marshland plants, including phragmites.
“On the one hand, phragmites is very poor habitat for a lot of animals –- birds, and even fish. But on the other hand, it is a champion soil builder,” Megonigal said among the reeds and measuring equipment at his wetlands research site, outside Edgewater, Maryland. “And so we find places where the plant is dominant that the soil elevation rises very rapidly, and that could be a good thing from the point of view of preventing these marshes from drowning due to sea level rise.”