Two students and a professor pose for a photos in a stand of phragmites reeds.
QQ Chua ’22 (front), Clasrissa Moore ’23 and Professor Martina Königer conduct research in a stand of phragmites.
Image credit: QQ Chua ’22

Reed all about it

Catherine O’Neill Grace
February 27, 2024

Phragmites, a common reed, has grown in New England for hundreds of years. The proliferation of non-native varieties on the Wellesley campus is more recent, however. Andrea Sequeira, Gordon P. Lang and Althea P. Lang ’26 Professor of Biological Sciences, and Martina Königer, adjunct assistant professor of biological sciences, have been studying the wet meadows on campus where phragmites have become dominant, using an interdisciplinary lens of population genetics and physiology.

“There is a native variety [of phragmites] in this area,” says Königer. “We’re not totally sure when the invasion of the non-natives started, but probably around 70 years ago. It’s a variety that originated in Eurasia, and probably was brought over in ships in the ballast. And it is a cryptic invasion, which means that people didn’t even notice that there was a different variety around, because the native and the introduced look extremely similar to each other.”

It took genetic analysis to figure out that the spreading, fluffy reeds on campus were different varieties than the native plant and ecological and physiological analysis to understand their role in the ecosystem and the details behind their resilience.

The biologists are fairly sure that the extensive stand of phragmites in the meadow beside the Science Complex has been there since the ’80s, based on recollections of ecologists working on campus at the time.

Königer and Sequeira studied three sites: the Science Complex meadow, and two sides of the boardwalk near Paintshop Pond. “In 2003, when [remediation of Paintshop Pond] was finished, the area had been planted with native species,” says Königer. “It was fine for a little bit, and then loosestrife came in. Then phragmites came in. So the invasion there probably occurred in the late 2000s.”

The wet meadows project was funded by a grant from the Paulson Ecology of Place Initiative, and considers questions that are at the intersection of several different disciplines—ecology, physiology, genetics, and invasion biology.

“The big, ambitious question is to try to understand the fundamental traits related to invasion success,” says Sequeira. “But our more specific, tangible goal was to understand what varieties of phragmites are present on campus. We didn’t know if we had the native or the invasive, or where they came from.”

This is an excerpt from a story by Catherine O'Neill Grace that appears in the winter edition of “Wellesley” magazine. Read the full story on the magazine website