Use herbicide to control problematic plants: freshwater swamps

How is the evidence assessed?
  • Effectiveness
  • Certainty
  • Harms

Study locations

Key messages

  • Four studies evaluated the effects, on vegetation, of using herbicide to control problematic plants in freshwater swamps. All four studies were in the USA.


  • Overall richness/diversity (2 studies): One replicated, randomized, paired, controlled study aiming to restore canarygrass-invaded swamps in the USA found that plots sprayed with herbicide typically had greater plant species richness and diversity than unsprayed plots, after 1–2 growing seasons. One replicated, randomized, controlled study in a petunia-invaded floodplain swamp in the USA found that plots sprayed with herbicide had similar overall plant species richness to unsprayed plots over 15 months after spraying.
  • Native/non-target richness/diversity (3 studies): Three replicated, controlled studies (also paired and/or randomized) in invaded freshwater swamps in the USA found that applying herbicide typically had no significant effect on native plant species richness, over 3–24 months after spraying.


  • Tree/shrub abundance (2 studies): Two replicated, controlled studies in the USA evaluated the effects, on tree/shrub abundance, of managing canarygrass-invaded vegetation by applying herbicide. One study found that plots sprayed with herbicide contained more non-planted tree seedlings than unsprayed plots, after 1–2 growing seasons. The other study found that managed plots (cut, disked and sprayed with herbicide) contained more non-planted tree seedlings than unmanaged plots, after 1–3 years.
  • Native/non-target abundance (2 studies): Two replicated, controlled studies in swamps in the USA reported that spraying invaded vegetation with herbicide (sometimes along with other interventions) typically had no clear or significant effect on native/non-target vegetation cover 1–3 years later. Cover was typically similar to unmanaged plots or before intervention.
  • Individual species abundance (1 study): One replicated, randomized, paired, controlled study aiming to restore a canarygrass-invaded swamp in the USA reported that spraying the vegetation with herbicide affected the abundance of some individual plant species – other than the target problematic species – two growing seasons later.


About key messages

Key messages provide a descriptive index to studies we have found that test this intervention.

Studies are not directly comparable or of equal value. When making decisions based on this evidence, you should consider factors such as study size, study design, reported metrics and relevance of the study to your situation, rather than simply counting the number of studies that support a particular interpretation.

Supporting evidence from individual studies

  1. A replicated, randomized, paired, controlled study in 2002–2005 aiming to restore swamps in three reed canarygrass Phalaris arundinacea stands in Wisconsin, USA (Hovick & Reinartz 2007) found that spraying the vegetation with herbicide typically increased plant species richness and diversity, and increased tree seedling density. After 1–2 growing seasons, overall plant richness was greater in sprayed than unsprayed plots in two of three comparisons (for which sprayed: 3.2–6.6; unsprayed; 1.9–2.3 species/m2; other comparison no significant difference). The same was true for overall plant diversity (data reported as a diversity index). However, native plant richness did not significantly differ between treatments in two of three comparisons (for which sprayed: 1.7–2.6; unsprayed; 1.3–2.2 species/m2; other comparison higher in sprayed plots). The density of non-planted tree seedlings was greater in sprayed plots in three of three comparisons (sprayed: 3–25; unsprayed: <1–4 seedlings/m2). For one of the three swamps, the study also reported data on the abundance of individual plant species (see original paper). Methods: Sixteen plots of varying size were established across three canarygrass-invaded wetlands. Ten plots (1–8 random plots/site) were sprayed with herbicide (Roundup®) in autumn 2002 or 2003. Six plots (1–4 random plots/site) were left unsprayed. All plots were planted with tree/shrub seedlings (roughly 1 seedling/m2) in spring 2003 or 2004. In August 2004, plant species and their cover were surveyed in ten 1-m2 quadrats/treatment/swamp, ignoring planted trees/shrubs.

    Study and other actions tested
  2. A replicated, controlled study in 2006–2009 in a floodplain swamp clearing invaded by reed canarygrass Phalaris arundinacea in Wisconsin, USA (Thomsen et al. 2012) found that cutting, disking and applying herbicide to invaded plots increased tree seedling abundance after 1–3 years, and increased cover of herbs other than canarygrass after three years. In three of three years following intervention, treated plots contained more tree seedlings (4–44 seedlings/m2) than untreated plots (0–5 seedlings/m2). At the same time, treated plots had lower reed canarygrass cover (7–31%) than untreated plots (83–92%). Cover of herbs other than reed canarygrass did not significantly differ between treated and untreated plots in the first two years after intervention (treated: 15–47%; untreated: 16–22%), but was higher in treated than untreated plots in the third year (treated: 35–58%; untreated: 12%). Methods: In November 2006, twenty plots (roughly 810 m2) were established in a storm-created clearing within a floodplain swamp. Sixteen canarygrass-dominated plots were treated by cutting the vegetation (with a mechanical mulcher), disking the soil, and applying herbicide (four combinations of herbicide type and dose; repeated applications in summer and autumn until November 2008). The other four plots received none of these interventions. The study does not distinguish between the effects of cutting, disking and applying herbicide. Some tree species were planted and/or sown across the whole clearing. Vegetation (excluding planted trees) was surveyed in August 2007–2009, in four 2.25-m2 quadrats/plot.

    Study and other actions tested
  3. A replicated, paired, controlled, before-and-after study in 2006–2008 in six freshwater swamps invaded by Old World climbing fern Lygodium microphyllum in Florida, USA (Hutchinson & Langeland 2015) reported that spraying the fern with herbicide had no clear effect on native plant richness or ground cover after two years. Unless specified, statistical significance was not assessed. Before intervention, plots destined to be sprayed contained 7–10 native plant species and had 46–72% native vegetation cover (mostly ferns). After two years, they contained 8–11 native plant species and had 33–67% native vegetation cover (mostly weedy species). Meanwhile, unsprayed plots contained 9 native plant species (sprayed plots statistically similar in ≥10 of 12 comparisons both before and after) and had 93–107% native vegetation cover (sprayed plots significantly lower in ≥11 of 12 comparisons both before and after). Herbicide treatments did reduce cover of the climbing fern (e.g. sprayed plots before: 59–72%; two years after: <1–4%). Methods: In September/October 2006, thirteen 20-m2 plots were established in each of six fern-invaded swamps. Seventy-two plots were sprayed with herbicide (1 plot/swamp for each of 12 different herbicides). Initial treatment was followed up with spot-treatments every 6 months. The final six plots (1 plot/swamp) were left unsprayed. Ground-level vegetation was surveyed on a 10-m-long transect in each plot, immediately before initial spraying (September/October 2006) and every 6 months after (until September/October 2008).

    Study and other actions tested
  4. A replicated, randomized, controlled study in 2013–2014 in a floodplain swamp invaded by Mexican petunia Ruellia simplex in Florida, USA (Smith et al. 2016) found that spraying the vegetation with herbicide had no significant effect on overall plant species richness. Averaged over 3–15 months after intervention, overall plant species richness was statistically similar in sprayed plots (2.8 species/2.25 m2) and unsprayed plots (1.8 species/2.25 m2). Sprayed plots also had statistically similar Mexican petunia cover to unsprayed plots (sprayed: 55%; unsprayed: 71%), but contained fewer Mexican petunia stems (sprayed: 5–35 stems/0.56 m2; unsprayed: 23–76 stems/0.56 m2) and, after 15 months, contained less Mexican petunia above-ground biomass (sprayed: 8 g/m2; unsprayed: 15 g/m2). Methods: Fourteen 1.5 x 1.5 m plots were established in a petunia-invaded floodplain swamp. In August 2013, seven random plots were sprayed with glyphosate herbicide (AquaPro®). The other seven plots were not sprayed. Vegetation was surveyed between November 2013 and November 2014: plant species and their cover every three months (whole plot), petunia stem density every month (two 75 x 75 cm quadrats/plot), and petunia biomass in November 2014 only (vegetation cut from one 15 x 15 cm quadrat/plot, then dried and weighed).

    Study and other actions tested
Please cite as:

Taylor N.G., Grillas P., Smith R.K. & Sutherland W.J. (2021) Marsh and Swamp Conservation: Global Evidence for the Effects of Interventions to Conserve Marsh and Swamp Vegetation. Conservation Evidence Series Synopses. University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK.

Where has this evidence come from?

List of journals searched by synopsis

All the journals searched for all synopses

Marsh and Swamp Conservation

This Action forms part of the Action Synopsis:

Marsh and Swamp Conservation
Marsh and Swamp Conservation

Marsh and Swamp Conservation - Published 2021

Marsh and Swamp Synopsis

What Works 2021 cover

What Works in Conservation

What Works in Conservation provides expert assessments of the effectiveness of actions, based on summarised evidence, in synopses. Subjects covered so far include amphibians, birds, mammals, forests, peatland and control of freshwater invasive species. More are in progress.

More about What Works in Conservation

Download free PDF or purchase
The Conservation Evidence Journal

The Conservation Evidence Journal

An online, free to publish in, open-access journal publishing results from research and projects that test the effectiveness of conservation actions.

Read the latest volume: Volume 21

Go to the CE Journal

Discover more on our blog

Our blog contains the latest news and updates from the Conservation Evidence team, the Conservation Evidence Journal, and our global partners in evidence-based conservation.

Who uses Conservation Evidence?

Meet some of the evidence champions

Endangered Landscape ProgrammeRed List Champion - Arc Kent Wildlife Trust The Rufford Foundation Save the Frogs - Ghana Mauritian Wildlife Supporting Conservation Leaders
Sustainability Dashboard National Biodiversity Network Frog Life The international journey of Conservation - Oryx Cool Farm Alliance UNEP AWFA Bat Conservation InternationalPeople trust for endangered species Vincet Wildlife Trust