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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.
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 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.
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.