How to Kill Cattails and Phragmites

Cattails and phragmites are extremely invasive aquatic plants that can be extremely difficult to remove. Though these plants can be quite beautiful and beneficial to an ecosystem in small amounts, cattails and phragmites will grow exponentially until they eventually choke out the surrounding ecosystem. Since both of these aquatic plants have extensive rhizome (root) systems, they can be extremely difficult to kill.

Even if you cut phragmites or cattails one by one, there is a chance you will leave some of the rhizome, in which case the plant will regrow in no time. These invasive plants can sometimes feel impossible to remove, however, with the proper approach to your individual situation, you should be able to kill off your cattails and phragmites without too much strain.

  1. Cutting and Pulling

Phragmites

Removing phragmites through cutting and pulling is an option that is truly accessible for all, since it really doesn’t require any fancy tools, though it is not always effective. Hand pulling can is quite a tedious approach, especially if the phragmites have had the chance to develop their extensive underground rhizome systems.

These rhizome systems need to be fully removed when hand-pulling, otherwise the phragmites will regrow. Hand cutting with shears and scissors can be just as tedious as pulling, though both are very possible if you only have a small growth of phragmites.

If hand pulling and cutting sounds too tedious, there are tools such as an aquatic rake, a weed whacker or a brush cutter that can make killing phragmites less exhaustive. An aquatic rake can be used to pull up the plants though once again, you may not be truly removing the extensive rhizomes which will only lead to a quick regrowth.

A weed whacker or brush cutter can be used to cut the phragmites a few inches above the ground level but still below the meristem to demote possible regrowth.

Generally, cutting phragmites is more of a gamble than pulling phragmites, since if you do not cut low enough you may only be creating an ideal regrowth environment. That being said pulling phragmites is quite a bit more tedious and exhausting and you will never truly know at the time if you managed to pull up all of the rhizomes.

Both cutting and pulling phragmites tends to be most effective when the plant is already dead (either by the cold season or herbicides,) or the ground is frozen since it will be less likely to grow back. No matter which method you choose, be sure to transport all of the phragmites somewhere where they will not be able to regrow and carefully clean all of the equipment used to prevent seeds from being spread.

Cattails

Much like with phragmites, cattails will be most effectively removed once they are dead (whether it be from the cold season or herbicides,) so wait until they are wilted to attempt to cut and pull them.

Cattails, like phragmites, have an extensive rhizome system, that if not dead when you are removing the plant, it will only lead to a speedy regrowth. Though you have to wait to remove the cattails, do not wait too long since once the cattails wilt and brown, they will quickly begin to decompose which will feed future unwanted growths.

You can use the same tools that you would use to remove the phragmites, such as the aquatic rake, to remove the dead cattails.

  1. Herbicides

Phragmites

Though you may want to avoid using chemicals, as explained above, removing phragmites naturally can be a lot of work and on top of that not always effective. Generally, if you have a very small growth, you should be able to kill them off with natural methods, which you should always try first to avoid harming the surrounding ecosystem. A safe rule of thumb is, the smaller your body of water, the more potential for harm for the surrounding life.

If you have a larger body of water and a large population of phragmites, herbicides may be your best and most effective option to kill off the phragmite population. Currently, there are two chemicals used to remove phragmites; glyphosate and imazapyr.

Since these chemicals can be very harmful to surrounding life, it is usually best to hire a professional who will know the best to remove phragmites, while causing the least harm. If you intend to remove the phragmites yourself, you may need a license and you will likely only have access to glyphosate since it is far less dangerous and harmful than imazapyr.

To ensure that the herbicides will be effective it is best to wait a few weeks (at least two) to ensure that the chemicals have reached the rhizome system. After this waiting period, if you are capable, you will want to pull or cut the phragmites to ensure the least possible chance of regrowth.

Cattails

The only really effective way to remove large amounts of cattails and prevent regrowth is to use herbicides, though remember, cattails are quite beneficial to an aquatic ecosystem in small amounts. Herbicides should be applied to the cattails once there is at least 12-18 inches of growth to maximize the chemicals’ effectiveness.

Similarly to phragmites, you will want to wait at least a few weeks (one to two weeks at least) to allow the chemicals time to kill the root system down below. After two weeks, the rhizomes and exposed cattails should be dead and you will be able to remove the cattails using the methods above. Do not wait too long to remove the cattails since this can allow for regrowth or decomposition which will only feed next year’s regrowth.

Conclusion

Phragmites and cattails are invasive aquatic species with extensive rhizome systems which can make them seem impossible to remove. Though killing these aquatic plants is not always easy, it certainly is not impossible. To make sure the approach you take is effective, it is important to know what you are dealing with.

Do you have a large body of water and a huge amount of cattails or phragmites or a small body of water with a small amount of these aquatic plants?  At Karina Lakefront Maintenance, it’s our mission to protect the environment while restoring your lakefront. When you take into account your individual situation and use the approach that is best suited to removing cattails/phragmites, you will find killing off this invasive species to be a lot less difficult than expected.

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