Salinity and depth to the water table are among the factors which control the distribution and performance of Phragmites. Maximum salinity tolerances vary from population to population; reported maxima range from 12 ppt (1.2%) in Britain to 29 ppt in New York state to 40 ppt on the Red Sea coast (Hocking et al. 1983). Dense stands normally lose more water through evapotranspiration than is supplied by rain (Haslam 1970). However, rhizomes can reach down almost 2 meters below ground, their roots penetrating even deeper, allowing the plant to reach low lying ground water (Haslam 1970). Killing frosts may knock the plants back temporarily but can ultimately increase stand densities by stimulating bud development (Haslam 1968).
Phragmites has a low tolerance for wave and current action which can break its culms (vertical stems) and impede bud formation in the rhizomes (Haslam 1970). It can survive, and in fact thrive, in stagnant waters where the sediments are poorly aerated at best (Haslam 1970). Air spaces in the above-ground stems and in the rhizomes themselves assure the underground parts of the plant with a relatively fresh supply of air. This characteristic and the species' salinity tolerance allow it to grow where few others can survive (Haslam 1970). In addition the build up of litter from the aerial shoots within stands prevents or discourages other species from germinating and becoming established (Haslam 1971a). The rhizomes and adventitious roots themselves form dense mats that further discourage competitors. These characteristics are what enable Phragmites to spread, push other species out and form monotypic stands.
Such stands may alter the wetlands they colonize, eliminating habitat for valued animal species. On the other hand, the abundant cover of litter in Phragmites stands may provide habitat for some small mammals, insects and reptiles. The aerial stems provide nesting sites for several species of birds, and Song Sparrows have been seen eating Phragmites' seeds (Klockner, pers. comm. 1985). Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) use Phragmites for emergency cover when low lying marshes are swept by storm tides and for food when better habitats are overpopulated (Lynch et al. 1947).
Studies conducted in Europe indicate that gall-forming and stem- boring insects may significantly reduce growth of Phragmites (Durska 1970; Pokorny 1971). Skuhravy (1978) estimated that roughly one-third of the stems in a stand may be damaged reducing stand productivity by 10-20%. Mook and van der Toorn (1982) found yields were reduced by 25 to 60% in stands heavily infested with lepidopteran stem- or rhizome-borers. Hayden (1947) suggested that aphids (Hyalopterus pruni) heavily damaged a Phragmites stand in Iowa. On the other hand work in Europe by Pintera (1971) indicated that although high densities of aphids may bring about reductions in Phragmites shoot height and leaf area they had little effect on shoot weight. Like other emergent macrophytes, Phragmites has tough leaves and appears to suffer little grazing by leaf-chewing insects (Penko 1985).
As mentioned above, there is great concern about recent declines in Phragmites in Europe where the species is still used for thatch. In fact, the journal Aquatic Botany devoted an entire issue (volume 35 no.1, September 1989) to this subject. Factors believed responsible for the declines include habitat destruction and manipulation of hydrologic regimes by humans, grazing, sedimentation and decreased water quality (eutrophication) (Ostendorp 1989).
Detailed reviews of the ecology and physiological ecology of Phragmites are provided by Haslam (1972; 1973) and Hocking et al. (1983) and an extensive bibliography is provided by van der Merff et al. (1987).