What are Reeds?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Reeds are perennial grasses which are classically distinguished by having hollow stems and broad leaves. These grasses typically grow in wetlands, and they can be found throughout the temperate and tropical regions of the world, with some reed types growing in colder environments. Humans have been utilizing reeds for a variety of tasks from roofing to papermaking for centuries.

Reeds are sometimes referred to as cattails.
Reeds are sometimes referred to as cattails.

Many people use the term to refer to grasses in the genera Phragmites, Arundo, Glyceria, and Phalaris. The term is also used to discuss sedges such as papyrus, and it is sometimes used in reference to cattails as well. All plants which are called “reeds” share the traits listed above, with some being interchangeable for various human uses, while others have very specific uses. Papyrus, for example, has historically been utilized in papermaking.

Reeds can usually be found in wetland areas.
Reeds can usually be found in wetland areas.

Reeds like to grow in moist soil, marshes, and shallow waters. As reeds grow and colonize an area, they will form a reed bed. Reed beds create shelter and habitat for a number of animal species, and they also slowly change the environment. The longer a reed bed lives, the more organic material it builds up, until ultimately the reeds find themselves growing on dry soil. Reed beds are often used in artificially constructed wetlands, and they are also useful for drawing toxins out of contaminated soil, as they can be used to sequester toxins and then removed.

Papyrus plants were once used to make paper.
Papyrus plants were once used to make paper.

Many birders like to visit areas with extensive reed beds, because several bird species are commonly found in association with reeds. Conservationists like to encourage the development of reed beds for the same reason. Reed beds also help to prevent flooding and the loss of soil in areas where marshlands have been disrupted by human activity.

The common reed is probably the most famous and widely distributed reed. Common reeds have been used in roof thatching for centuries, and it has also been used to make baskets and woven reed mats. Common reeds can also be trimmed and fired to make crude charcoal pencils or pen nibs, and they can be pulped to make a coarse form of paper, as well.

The reed which lends its name to the reeds in musical instruments is Arundo donax, the giant reed. It is native to the Mediterranean, although it has since spread to other regions of the world, thanks to human cultivation. As the name implies, this reed can grow to be quite large, and it is also famous for its incredibly rapid growth.

Reeds have been used to thatch roofs for centuries.
Reeds have been used to thatch roofs for centuries.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


The reeds growing in and around my parents’ pond gathered so much silt over time that you could hop between reed beds and not get your feet wet. My cousin and I used to do this, until she had an unpleasant encounter with a turtle.

She didn’t know that he was resting in a reed bed, soaking up the sun, and he didn’t know that she was about to leap on top of his bed. We always wore flip-flops while read-leaping, so our toes were exposed.

My cousin landed right beside the turtle still didn’t see him. She didn’t notice he was there until he clamped down on her big toe with his mouth.


There are beds of cattails growing down my road in a ditch. I loved playing with them as a child. To me, they looked like big brown hot dogs on tall blades of grass. These were the first reeds I had ever encountered. They were taller than me, which I found to be magical.

I used to love pulling out sections of the brown tufts. It destroyed the look of the cattail, but it was so cool. They were so tightly packed that they looked like solid brown objects, but when I pulled on them, their fluffy white undersides were revealed. They popped open like a jam-packed suitcase.


Reed beds are super tough. My dad once bent his lawnmower blades when trying to cut one down.

I have tried pulling reeds up with my hands before, and it is impossible. A patch of reeds started growing near my flower bed, and I just had to dig it up with a shovel and dispose of it.

Because they are so strong and sheltering, they make good hiding places for small animals and insects. I have seen dozens of dragonflies flitting between reed beds, and I have seen baby rabbits run out from them. Frogs like to sit beneath them as well.


I live by a large pond and several reed beds, both in the water and leading up to it. They are super thick and full of hiding places. I am scared to step on them, because I know that there could be snakes coiled down in the reeds.

My landlord actually told me to watch out when walking out there, because he had just mowed some of the area, and several poisonous snakes slithered away. He said they went toward the woods, but I still don’t feel safe among the reeds.

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