Invasive Phragmites: Discovering the Tipping Point

It’s late summer at Fisherman’s Island State Park on Lake Michigan’s coast, just south of Charlevoix. And a team of researchers in chest-high waders are shuffling out into the water and wetland plants to drive fence posts and pull samples of the sediment along the shore.

This interdisciplinary research team, including hydrologists, ecologists, and remote sensing experts, hails from the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Michigan Technological University. They’re here to establish and check one of many sampling sites along the Great Lakes shoreline in Northern Michigan this summer, hoping to better document and understand the processes that affect the spread and growth of invasive wetland plants – like the infamous grass known as phragmites.


Phragmites (phragmites australis) is an invasive perennial marsh grass that can grow very, very quickly into extremely dense stands over 6-foot tall. This plant can spread by seeds, soil movement or extensive under and above ground stems that can reach many yards away. Phragmites crowds out everything else and can completely disrupt healthy fish and wildlife habitat.

Professor Deborah E. Goldberg

Professor Deborah Goldberg leads the community ecology aspects of this interdisciplinary research. In this video, Goldberg explains how habitats invaded by phragmites can experience a tipping point. This aggressive and dominant plant can capture and concentrate nutrients running off the land. Ultimately, even small additions of nutrients can give phragmites the push it needs to completely overcome all the natural vegetation and establish a mono-culture. Once past that tipping point, it can be very, very difficult – if not impossible – to return to anything that looks like the original habitat.

Watch the video essay to learn more about this research effort and tipping points in Northern Michigan.

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