Phalaris arundinacea (Reed Canary Grass)

Plant Info
Also known as: Reed Canarygrass
Family:Poaceae (Grass)
Life cycle:perennial
  • Invasive - ERADICATE!
Habitat:part shade, sun; any moist soil; wetlands, fields, woods
Fruiting season:late spring to early summer
Plant height:2 to 5 feet
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FACW MW: FACW NCNE: FACW
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Flower: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: panicle

[photo of flowering panicle] Branching cluster at the tip of the stem, taller than wide, 2 to 16 inches long (usually 8 inches or less), narrowly pyramidal in outline at flowering time, the main branches up to 3½ inches long (usually 2 or less), ascending to spreading when flowering, and the branches all becoming erect/appressed at maturity. Spikelets (flower clusters) are single at branchlet tips, 3 or more spikelets per branch, 1/8 to 1/3 inch (3.5 to 7.5mm) long, often tinged with purple, somewhat flattened, narrowly egg-shaped with a pointed tip, each with a single fertile floret flanked by a pair of inconspicuous sterile florets. Branch and spikelet stalks are slender and wiry, green to purple.

[close-up of mature branches] At the base of a spikelet is a pair of bracts (glumes) that are thin and papery, rough-textured, elliptic with a pointed tip, keeled, 3-veined, 3.5 to 7.5 mm long, the upper and lower glumes about equal and as long as the spikelet. Surrounding the fertile floret is a pair of bracts (lemma and palea), the lemma egg-shaped, pointed at the tip, 2.7 to 4.5 mm long, keeled, 5-veined, shiny yellowish to dark brown, and hairy; the palea is 2-veined and lacks a keel but is otherwise similar to the lemma. Sterile lemmas are long-hairy, scale-like, and half or less as long as and narrower than the fertile lemma; sterile paleas are lacking or insignificant.

Leaves and stem: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf type: simple

[photo of leaves] Leaves are alternate, evenly spaced along the stem, ascending to spreading, mostly flat, hairless but rough-textured on surfaces and along the edges, 4 to 12 inches long, ¼ to about ¾ inch (5 to 20mm) wide. Dead leaves turn a bleached tan color and persist through winter.

[photo of sheath, ligule and node] Stem sheaths are hairless with thin, translucent edging, and the edges overlapping at or near the tip. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is 4 to 10 mm long, very thin, often folded over and lacks a fringe of hairs. The collar (outer junction between the blade and sheath) is prominent and yellowish. Nodes are smooth. Stems are smooth, unbranched, and form large, dense colonies from long, scaly rhizomes. The entire upper vegetative portion of this species fades to a pale, bleached tan that is diagnostic in the dormant season identification.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of mature spikelets] The glumes become straw-colored and slightly spreading at maturity, the fertile and sterile florets dropping off as a unit leaving the glumes behind on the stalk. Grains (seeds) are brown, slightly flattened, broadest near the tip with an abrupt taper to a short beak.


This is perhaps the single most destructive, invasive wetland species in Minnesota to date. One of its field identifying characteristics is that it is so everywhere! The stems and leaves eventually collapse into a sprawling mat that is difficult to traverse by humans and wildlife alike and is essentially useless for nesting habitat. At least one DNR ecologist notes that any area taken over by it becomes a biological desert, with little diversity of insects, birds or other wildlife. Its dense stands, voracious root systems and persistent seed bank make it a resource manager's nightmare. Though it has limited commercial seed production in Minnesota it is widely distributed throughout Minnesota, the US and the world. A form with striped leaves, f. varietata a.k.a. Ribbon Grass, is cultivated as an ornamental and is supposedly sterile but has also been known to escape to the wild and spread vegetatively.

Having said all that, a recent study by the University of Minnesota has made an unexpected discovery: most, if not all, Reed Canary Grass populations along the major rivers in the state are native. This was after extensive sampling along 6 major rivers and genetically testing them against populations from the Czech Republic, which is near the same latitude as Minnesota and has a similar river system. The two are genetically distinct, and the Minnesota populations are genetically similar to what has long been considered an extensive native population in Roseau County. Surprise, surprise. The next wave of testing is expected to be along major highway corridors. We'll see how that turns out.

Of note is there are no morphological differences between native and European plants so genetic testing is the only way to distinguish them. And just because it's native doesn't mean it isn't also invasive, at least in areas where it's been introduced. If it forms a monoculture where there was once diversity, consider it grounds for extermination.

Native Plant Nurseries, Restoration and Landscaping Services ↓

Map of native plant resources in the upper midwest

  • Natural Shore Technologies - Using science to improve land and water
  • Minnesota Native Landscapes - Your Ecological Problem Solvers
  • Spangle Creek Labs - Native orchids, lab propagated
  • Prairie Restorations - Bringing people together with the land
  • Landscape Alternatives

More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk and K. Chayka, taken at various locations in MN--it's everywhere! Phalaris arundinacea form variegata By Frank Vincentz (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons, used under CC BY-SA 3.0


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: John Moriarty, Ramsey County Parks
on: 2009-12-28 09:58:05

My feeling about reed canary is that it has a strong foothold in many wetlands and control of it in large wetlands is currently impossible. The best way to work with rcg is to try to control small isolated patches and to make sure it isn't spread into non-infested sites. The continued planting of this plant makes control of rcg even harder. I have a hard time supporting expensive revegetation projects in rcg dominated wetlands complexes because rcg will reinvade rapidly.

Posted by: Dave Crawford, DNR retired
on: 2010-01-22 16:33:07

The comment "so everywhere!" in the notes is so true! Seeing reed canary grass occupying stream and lake edges, wetlands, even damp parts of otherwise dry prairies, and continuing to expand into healthy, wildlife-rich habitat, is a heartbreak. Knowing the superb diversity of native, non-cultivar species which is present before reed canary takes hold, it's discouraging to see that diversity disappear. Prevention is better than cure, in my mind. Prevent establishment of reed canary wherever possible, and eliminate starter populations while they're still manageable, as John says. The invasiveness of reed canary exceeds that of the well-known purple loosestrife. Control of reed canary is crippled because reed canary isn't a prohibited species, so there is no regulation to prevent new infestations. Also, while successful biocontrol has been developed for purple loosestrife, since reed canary is still legal to plant, no biocontrol has been or is likely to be developed.

A Wisconsin ecological restoration specialist, who had been doing prairie restoration in the Madison Wisconsin area for decades when I talked with him in the 90s, said that, if he seeded natives and burned reed canary aggressively, he could get a few plants of native species to start to show up after 10 or 12 years of effort. He considered that effort worthwhile, but it paints a good picture of how uphill the battle is. A former colleague attempted to establish natives on a site clogged with reed canary, and had next to no success even with diligent efforts. On my Wisconsin property, wherever there's rcg, there's nothing else, not even cattails, and they're considered invasive in their own right.

Posted by: Tyler - Western MN
on: 2010-05-23 23:15:03

The only way I have heard of control working is with high intensity early spring and late fall grazing, during the active growing season. repeated defoliation during initial and regrowth, then resting while natives have a chance to establish is the best, and it will still take years. A great example of this is to look at native rangelands in northeast south dakota that have had good grazing management for many years. You will find very little RCG and lots of native sedges meadows and cordgrass.

Posted by: Diana - NE Mpls
on: 2011-08-07 15:32:31

I've planted native, including grasses & sedges, on my front slope. I'm also pulling up every grass I can't identify, erring on the side of pulling something I've planted - just so I'm sure to have only native grasses and sedges. Can you tell me whether this grass has a leaf that, when you run your fingers flat against it toward the stem, the edges have just a bit of a saw-tooth? Nothing visible, and nothing that hurts - just a bit of resistance, and only when drawing toward the stem. Thanks. (I've already pulled it out, just in case!)

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2011-08-07 21:49:51

Diana, I don't know if it does, or if it does, whether that would be an identifying trait. I suspect many other grasses might have a similar texture on the leaf edges.

Posted by: John - Newfolden, MN
on: 2011-08-30 21:55:09

Two local farmers told me that canary grass is good feed if you can get it before it "heads." However, they said that getting it timely is difficult as it is often in wet areas that are problematic to get into or work in.

Posted by: Bill Bartodziej, Ramsey-Washington Metro Watershed District
on: 2012-01-18 13:52:18

We have had success controlling reed canary grass along certain lakeshores and wetlands. Soil nitrogen seems to be a factor. In sandy-granular soils with low N levels, we have been able to establish diverse native plant communities under reasonable management protocols. See Ecological Restoration (2011) 29:329-331 for a summary [ed. note: pdf available on the web site].

Posted by: max - stillwater washington county
on: 2012-02-22 14:21:04

it as a some what high DMT content in the hole plant

Posted by: Izzy - washington
on: 2012-03-14 10:51:17

John, Reed Canary grass is toxic to live stock do to its many alkaloids DMT, gramine,5-MeO-DMT and hordenine

Posted by: Ken - Washington County
on: 2012-07-22 10:15:50

What is the best way for a layperson (non-botanist, farmer, horticulturist, etc.) to get rid of RDC?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2012-07-22 16:09:02

Ken, the Wisconsin DNR has some suggested mechanical and chemical treatments on their RCG page that you might try.

Posted by: Jason - Mankato, Blue Earth County
on: 2013-07-26 23:28:14

Indian Lake Conservation Area

Posted by: Julie - Sibley County
on: 2013-08-30 10:02:44

Actually, reed canarygrass can be a great option for forage for livestock. The alkaloids are not toxic, but definitely reduce palatability. Researchers are working on developing varieties with fewer alkaloids, to increase palatability and quality for livestock feed. It can be a good way to utilize farmland that is lower-lying. For more info, please see this U of MN Extension bulletin:

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2013-08-30 11:49:54

Julie, we don't think there is ANY good use for RCG. It's a highly aggressive invasive species that CANNOT be contained to somebody's farmland. I cannot believe there are no other forage options.

Posted by: Christine - St. Louis Park
on: 2015-05-31 04:36:32

I found some tall grass growing spontaneously in the wild area of my parents property in the Minnetonka Mills area. It is consistently about 5' high, and makes a good screen. The root/rhizome(?) is fleshy and pink like the roots of the decorative ribbon grass. I don't remember seeing this tall grass while I was growing up, but then I wasn't paying attention. Does it seem likely I have found reed canary grass?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2015-05-31 09:29:10

Christine, RCG is absolutely everywhere, so yes, it is very likely

Posted by: Linda Quammen
on: 2016-05-28 23:21:56

Well, I finally got here. After 4+ years of pulling Garlic mustard, Queen Anne's Lace, Japanese Hedge Parsley, Spotted Knapweed and more from spring to frost I may be seeing the forest instead of the trees. The past couple years I've noticed the grasses are encroaching everywhere--woodland, lakeshore, prairie. Mainly one grass so I came here and confirmed what I didn't want to know--reed canary grass.

In the parks where I volunteer my time pulling (as do many others) there is no attempt to eradicate or even mitigate (or talk about) reed canary grass anyplace other than on lakeshores. So, given that there is little physical support other than a very limited number of volunteers, should we volunteers stop pulling all other invasives and start pulling rcg? Can we actually pull it--at least where it is just a series of small infestations? And, shouldn't some of that Legacy Amendment money be going toward removal of an invasive that will change our ecosystems and whole landscape? How do we get groups talking about the elephant in the room?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2016-05-29 09:07:41

Linda, I wish we had an answer for you, or this was a good forum to have the kind of discussion you desire. Nobody with the power to do anything significant (such as the MN Weed Advisory group) is listening, or their ears are plugged up by the industry and the MN Crop Improvement Assn. Depending on where you are, your county Soil and Water Conservation district might have some thoughts on the subject, or maybe provide some assistance. I wish you luck.

Posted by: Dan Bye - Southern Cass County
on: 2020-07-08 17:59:16

This has been the dominant species here on the family farm since my great-grandparents homesteaded at the end on the 19th century. The mucky soils, stuck implements and seasonally flooded basements were mitigated by the rich biomass provided by this natural fodder which was the backbone of my grandpa's dairy farming from the Great Depression through the 1960's Today the same perennial stands of reed canary are feeding my goats and cattle now that this 4th and 5th generation have taken an interest in balancing our survival with this inherited ecosystem. Funny how perspectives can differ so much geographically and generationally. Here the willows along with the city folk are the weeds we'd prefer not to invade our pastures and haylands.

Posted by: luciearl - lake shore
on: 2020-10-03 17:18:53

This looks very similar to what is inching into my shoreline buffer from neighbor's yard. All the leaves are on one side of the stem. It doesn't look like it is with reed canary, but is there something similar?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2020-10-04 14:29:04

Luciearl, it's impossible to say without more info. Have you tried using the grass search to narrow down the choices? Or post some images on the Minnesota Wildflowers Facebook page? Grasses can be particularly difficult to ID without fruiting heads so if they are gone you may have to wait until next year.

Posted by: Sherman - in Duluth on Basswood Ave at Chester Creek, and...
on: 2022-06-23 07:31:38

This annoying grass has been present on the West side of Chester Creek at Basswood Ave. It's nearly the only thing growing along the South edge of the creek for 50 feet or more. It's so dense that walking through it is impossible. There's also an extremely large area of it along a stretch of powerline that runs southward behind the Helmer I. Carlson Recreational Field, straight towards the glacier-polished bedrock hillside at the Duluth Heights Recreation Center. The forests on either side of the powerline clearing keep the Reed Canary Grass pretty much localized to the powerline area.

Posted by: Luciearl - Lake Shore
on: 2022-07-17 03:35:01

I commented above 2 yrs ago.Update-Im now sure it is probably canary reed grass. Wish I had pulled it then. A Lake Steward program promotes native buffers on our lake. This has taken over my buffer. I feel it is smothering the native plants,milkweed, canada anemone, skullcaps and others. I added horsetails behind it and it has not spread into that, but feel mowing the whole thing down may be my only option, swhich is eliminating the benefits of native buffer for the lake.

Posted by: Luciearl - Lake Shore
on: 2023-09-14 16:47:17

Interesting for me to read my comments from previous years. I did trim it early in the summer and I think it gave my natives a better chance to get ahead.I also did not let it go to seed. I plan to mow it down soon and again early in the spring before the natives start popping through. Footnote-Part of my shoreline is a 3 ft bank (natives and rcg) but is not trying to grow on the sandy shoreline/beach. Should I try laying a roll of plastic over it for the winter?

Post a comment

Note: All comments are moderated before posting to keep the riff-raff out. An email address is required, but will not be posted—it will only be used for information exchange between the 2 of us (if needed) and will never be given to a 3rd party without your express permission.

For info on subjects other than plant identification (gardening, invasive species control, edible plants, etc.), please check the links and invasive species pages for additional resources.


Note: Comments or information about plants outside of Minnesota and neighboring states may not be posted because Id like to keep the focus of this web site centered on Minnesota. Thanks for your understanding.