Tuesday, April 5, 2011

A Couple Cool Carex

Geeze, say that post title five times fast!  For those that are not familiar with the Latin lingo of the botanical world, Carex is the genus for the 'true' sedges.  They hail from the family Cyperaceae which contains well over 5,000 species in over 100 genera; with Carex being the largest. What's a sedge you ask?  Well, they look almost identical to their monocotyledonous flowering plant brethren, the grasses (Poaceae) and rushes (Juncaceae) to the untrained eye but with a couple key differences.  Sedges have stems that are triangular in cross-section and have leaves in a spiraling three-ranked pattern.  Three-ranked means there are three planes to the leaves, appearing like this: /_\.  Grasses and rushes are two-ranked so they appear like this: |  | and have stems that are round or occasionally flat.  I've always been told to follow the ol' saying, "Rushes & grasses are round and sedges have edges" and it seems to work pretty well.

With over 160 species of Carex found in Ohio, this quickly ranks as one of the most difficult and frustrating genus' to tackle for any botanist, greenhorn or experienced.  I know my fair share already but I've put a large majority of them off for too long and have decided to make 2011 the year of the sedges and do my best to learn as many as I can.  I can hear a few of you muttering, "good luck" under your breath as you read that and I'm sure I'll need as much as I can get.  So with that being said let's take a look at two really neat species in full bloom right now.

Carex picta female plant
Carex picta male plant

Leading off is Boott's Sedge (Carex picta), which has the very unique and interesting trait of being one of the few diecious sedges.  Diecious means that male (staminate) and female (pistillate) flowers occur on separate plants while monoecious means just the opposite.  If you find these plants as enthralling as I do and wish to seek them out for yourself you're going to have to go next door to  Indiana.  C. picta has a disjunct population in a handful of counties in South-central Indiana and can be found in increasing frequency as your move farther south.

Carex picta staminate flowers
Carex picta pistillate flowers

Taking a closer look at the terminal inflorescence spikelets on this sedge you can see that the male and female plants are relatively easy to tell apart.  The staminate flower spikelet is reddish in color and emits many pollen covered anthers that are honey yellow.  Gently tapping the culm (stalk) will send a tiny shower of yellow pollen 'dust' into the air.  The pistillate flowers on the other hand terminate in a spikelet at the end of the culm as well but differ in color quite noticeably.  The spikelet is dark purple, almost black with tiny, white 'hairs' protruding out of the sides.  These hairs are the female flowers that once pollinated will mature into the tiny seeds called achenes, wrapped up in their papery perigynia (the structure where the achene matures and pistil protrudes).

Staminate flower
Pistillate flower

Above are two macro shots of the staminate and pistillate flowers to show in detail their respective differences.  While many sedges are wetland species and found where moist or saturated soils abound, Carex picta seems to do just fine on drier, well-drained soils.  These plants were found on the upper slopes of a mature Oak/Hickory woods with Greenbrier (Smilax rotundifolia) running wild on the ground, making for a rather uncomfortable and difficult photo session.  Oddly enough, sedges are most commonly identified by taking a look at the mature achenes under magnification, looking for subtle differences while most other vascular plants are identified by flowers or leaves (not to say sedges cannot be I.D.'ed in that manner as well, it just doesn't always work out to your advantage).

Carex plantaginea
Carex plantaginea

The second species I wanted to introduce is the relatively easy to identify and equally cool, Plantain-leaved Sedge (Carex plantaginea).  Named for it's resemblance to the entirely unrelated Plantain genus of Plantago, the wide, ribbon-like leaves spill down from its rosette like a waterfall of vivacious green.  I find this sedge to be very aesthetically pleasing regardless of the time of year.  It it rather uncommon in Ohio, only being found in a handful of counties in the Northeast, a few to the Southeast and a couple in the West-central  section of Ohio.  It prefers shaded, cool, mesic deciduous woodlands with deep, rich soil and really thrives in deep ravines and gorges where cooler temperatures and high humidity persist.  The two best places I've seen this plant grow in profusion is Conkle's Hollow Nature Preserve and Clifton Gorge Nature Preserve.  Both are excellent examples of its aforementioned preference for cool and humid places.  I've also seen it scattered throughout ravines and north-facing hillsides in my favorite haunts in Athens County.

Carex plantaginea
Carex plantaginea

Taking a look at the flowers you can see this sedge follows the much more common rule of being monoecious.  The culms terminate with the staminate flowers and the smaller spikelets of the white 'haired' pistillate flowers patiently wait below for the slightest of breezes to send a cloud of pollen its way.  I really find the flowers of sedges to be more deserving of our attention as I'm sure 99% of people walked right past these plants without even a glance or notice.  While shooting these photo's in Conkle's Hollow I'm sure I had a few people give me looks and questioned my sanity as all they saw was a grown man laying flat on his stomach taking pictures of what appeared to be clumps of grass.  I could try and explain to them just how neat these plants are but I fear my words of excitement and proclamation would fall on deaf ears.  They truly are beautiful and transcending in their own respective ways.  So next time you find yourself out hiking this Spring keep an eye out for any sedges sending up the flowering culms and sit down for a quick meet and greet.  They may not be as large and showy as the surrounding Spring ephemerals but they certainly fill any knack for something contrary to your normal list of Spring plants.


  1. Wow! I love your blog. I can see I'm going to learn a lot by reading your posts! I really had fun on the mustard trip. Hope to meet you on the next expedition!

  2. Thank you for introducing me to sedges!