Plant Profiles: Sedges¦more specifically genus Carex

Plant Profiles: Sedges€¦ more specifically genus Carex – Our editor, Alana had suggested this topic. So have others in the past while stewing over species identification.

-Henry Weeds Eilers


That can be a challenge indeed. The Cyperaceae, commonly referred to as sedges, number about 4,000 species world wide. Approximately one half of these are the true sedges, genus Carex. Here in Illinois we probably have over 150 species. That is a lot. Yet most of us are blissf unaware of them or their importance in the natural scheme of things. Few species show up in native plant sales and fewer get purchased. As a famous comedian used to say, We don™’t get no respect. Yet they are an important part, often even the ‘weft and weave of most of our natural communities. They hold them together like few other plant groups. We are more impressed by the gaudy and showy representatives of the plant kingdom, sort of like sports and entertainment stars of the human ecosystem. But what would they be without us common folks?

So, how do we best use these commoners of the plant world  and why?

Let’s start with the why. Almost all the species make the best of companion plants for showier species. Unlike many grasses, they are of much lower stature and none are known to be invasive. Several horticultural selections, mostly with variegated foliage and of Japanese origin are suggested as companion plants for Hosta. A good many species have very attractive inflorescences and are useful for dried arrangements. It goes without saying that any sod forming species, and there are many – have to be used in the right place. One of these, Penn Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) has been recommended as a œno-mow turf substitute in shady situations. A quick Google search turns up some quite interesting landscaping ideas. I have encountered it in Macoupin County in upland woods where it indeed looked very appealing with its soft and wavy foliage. Many species have been recommended for rain gardens. Some of these were featured in a previous column dealing with that subject. Their most important place is however in natural community restoration projects. Here they have been woefully under represented, especially in CRP type plantings. The public should demand that they be used more and also become a major part of native plant sales.  Dr. R. Mohlenbrocks Flora of Illinois, Carex volume has a very helpful listing of species by habitat. Perhaps 6-pack collections of different species by habitat could further the cause of making sedges a staple item. Perhaps some reader has additional ideas.

Quite a few good guides have come on the market in recent years. I recently met Dr. Michael Murphy from the INHS, doing floristic survey work for IDOT on Route 16 between Hillsboro and Nokomis. He is also working on a Carex publication that emphasizes pictorial aspects in identification. Not being a professional taxonomist that approach has a lot of appeal for me. He is however starting with the most challenging section, the Ovales. They are fairly easy to recognize as a group, but telling apart all 30 or so species in the state, I am afraid will remain an insurmountable challenge for me! But I promise to try.

With so many species, native plant aficionados will find sedges a great subject for study. If you can  remember baseball scores and other sport trivia you can certainly learn to identify sedges. You will certainly be doing your part to celebrate diversity!

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