This word doesn’t belong where it looks like it belongs. Or it does, depending on where you think it belongs.

It sure looks like stalagmites, doesn’t it? You know, the stone spires in caves that stick up from the floor? (The ones that hang down from the ceiling are stalactites. As a kid I learned from some CBC kids’ show that stalactites have to hang on tite, while stalagmites grow up with all their mite. Of course they don’t; like coffee and comments sections, they increase drip by drip. But it’s memorable.)

It also looks like sparagmites, which are kinds of sandstones, conglomerates, and other fragmental rocks. Hmm… frag-mites. Only it’s phrag. As in phragma, a partition in the bodies of some insects. Or phragmocone, the chambered part of the shell in certain cephalopods. Or phragmoplast or phragmosome, which are subcellular things that show up during cell division in certain plants.

That phrag. It seems simultaneously erudite and ludicrous, perhaps even crapulous. It makes me think of attempts at locution while the mouth is stuffed with a rag. But no. Nor is it something to do with fragments. It does have to do with dividing, though. It comes from Greek ϕράγμα ‘fence, screen’.

So is a phragmite a fence kind of rock, then? No. It’s not a rock at all.

I first saw this word in an article in the New York Times. The sentence in which I saw it was “Friends of Ms. Vetrano said she ran frequently with her father along the trail, which is lined by the tall reeds known as phragmites.”

So. A phragmite is a kind of reed.

Nope. Wrong again.

A phragmite isn’t anything. Phragmites is a kind of reed. Yes, it’s a fake plural. It’s pronounced like “frag mighties.”

And what kind of reed is it? It is a common reed. In fact, it is the common reed. That’s its normal English name: the common reed. The author of the story might as well have just said the trail was lined by tall reeds.

Phragmites is everywhere. Its geographical spread is described as “cosmopolitan”; it’s a native species pretty much all over the globe. But at the same time, in North America it is described as an invasive species. What?

Well, there are different kinds of these reeds. Phragmites australis is native to North America, whereas Phragmites australis is an invasive European… what? Can’t see the difference? Oh, yeah, well, there are subspecies. The kind that was already here before the Europeans arrived is subspecies americanus. The other kind is the standard Eurasian kind. They look just slightly different – the Eurasian kind tends to grow in denser stands, have denser seedheads, and be lighter and bluer in colour. The main way you can probably identify it is that, unlike the americanus kind, it doesn’t grow mixed in with the other plants; it tends to crowd them out. Yeah, the native species was living here nicely, getting along with everything, and then the Eurasian kind came across the ocean and starting taking everything and crowding all the rest out. Even though they’re the same species. Huh.

I’ll tell you one thing: rocks don’t do that.

4 responses to “phragmites

  1. The mnemonic that has served me well is “stalaC—” for ceiling, “stalaG—” for ground. For me, “tight” and “might” are less direct.

  2. I always liked the mnemonic “When the mites go up then the tites go down”

  3. Kristi Anderson

    Another device for determining which is which… in school I was taught stalactites are like icicles in that they drip and hang down. If it wasn’t a stalactite then it had to be a stalagmite.

  4. Very well explained! So “myriad” can be used in multiple ways. Is “multiple” another word that is going the same way?

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