common reed by roadside.jpg

Phragmites or common reed, an invasive species taking over marshes, swamps, roadside ditches and moist soils, are seen here, crowding goldenrod along a roadside in Pittsfield.

Q: What is a good method to dry flowers now, some are with seeds and are very attractive, along with different grasses and the tall grass growing near swamps with wonderful tassels at the top? 

— James N., North Adams

A: First let's examine the "common reed" that is in the grass family. That in a larger room, because of its tall stems may make a stunning dried decorative addition in a corner, or as imagination dictates. The plant itself is cosmopolitan, being widespread and throughout the world has found various uses. In the Philippines for instance, it is harvested and when dried is fashioned into whisk brooms and brooms in general in other countries. In some places fabricated into baskets and mats, even roofing as well as being fashioned into paper. Traditional Chinese medicine has long found a use for various cough-related problems.

Phragmites australis goes by the generic name "common reed" as we see it along roads in wet soils such as ditches, and especially along marshes, forming dense monocultures, taking over native plants.

The obvious common reed is a subspecies and has been introduced from Europe and Asia and is considered invasive and is illegal to propagate or sell in most states or should be. It is in Massachusetts. The native genotype (spp. americanus) is not aggressive, thus not overtaking other species. The native, apparently only found in small population stands throughout the state, is rare.


There are numerous ways to preserve (dry) plants, and I have experimented with microwave, sand, and silica-gel (an expensive method, but one I tried with some success with tiny blossoms) There are other methods, these are just a few. In the 1960s I would preserve plant species both fresh and marine water species and several terrestrial species in various formaldehyde and copper solutions from laboratories supplying high school and college botany classes. These techniques are much more fun!

Large plants like grasses (including common reeds) are best air-dried by hanging in small groups hung by twine in a dry place. And a would-be enclosure if I were going to dry it today would be our garage or shed.

Smaller plants like flowers in bloom or have gone to seed, 12 inches to about 24 inches may be grouped and hung to fit on coat hangers. I hang plants that I am drying in a shed that would also be good for long-stemmed reeds, but for many years I hung a variety in our attic that had a high roof. I even once dried a large relatively fresh moose dropping on a pizza box in the then dry and hot Berkshire Museum attic for a natural history display. At present, I am drying several bunches of catnip for our next-door neighbor whose cat is sorely in need of rehab, and an assortment of seed heads of once colorful flowers that attracted a small variety of butterflies including the monarch. Climate conditions are the key to drying. If the weather is dry, plants may dry in a week and a half to double that if less dry in a shed, less so in an attic.

Q: How long is a full moon full?

—  Margaret, Bennington, Vt.

A: I hope this is a joke, but it not being April 1, I will answer it as I did back in 1992 when I answered a similar query. To paraphrase, It becomes obvious when we consider the answer to questions like how long is it midnight? The answer is quite simple. Not long at all. As soon as the clock registers midnight, it does not stop, it continues for 1 second. And as soon as the high tide begins to wane after reaching high, the full moon, after reaching full, begins to wane. It doesn't stop, because the Earth doesn't stop.

Q:  Last early June I found a luna moth with pink on its outer wings (in Connecticut). The summer before I found one with yellow on the outer wings. Are these two different moths?

— Matthew, Pittsfield

A: Yes, they were different individuals, but not different species. This large lime green moth has what I think is called seasonal forms. In areas where that are two broods in a season, the spring emerging produces lunas with pink to purple while those emerging in summer have yellowish wing margins.