If you are looking for a lower growing alternative to native grasses in your landscape, sedges can provide an edge!
There are nearly 1,500 sedge species in North America. Sedges come from the vast Cyperaceae family of monocoetyledonous graminoid flowering plants.
The Carex branch of the sedge family typically have a leaf set that has “edges”, the shape of the leaves are triangular, solid stems with the leaves arranged in three ranks. When you hold a sedge leaf, it has sharp edges. This compares to grasses which have alternate leaves in two ranks that are smooth to the touch. Ecologists when determining the identity of a grass like plant have a saying “sedges have edges”.
Sedges inhabit wet areas, some forming colonies in “tussock” marshes, distinguished by the mounds created by Tussock Sedge. Sedge meadows are a complex ecosystem that harbor a great many forbs, including Joe Pye Weed-Eupatorium maculatum, Blue Flag Iris-Iris versicolor, Angelica, Red Milkweed-Asclepias incarnata, Great Blue Lobelia-Lobelia siphilitica, and Bergamot-Monarda fistulosa, accompanied by rush species such as Dark Green Bullrush-Scirpus atrovirens, Woolgrass-Scirpus cyperinus, Rushes and grasses that can include Canada Bluejoint grass-Calamagrostis canadensis.
In Wisconsin we are blessed with many wetlands inhabited by sedges including the vast Necedah National Wildlife Refuge and the Horicon National Wildlife Refuge. At the Necedah refuge core studies by the University of Wisconsin have shown that the peat and muck at the bottom of the sedge meadow show a record of plant material that was dated to be 11,000 years old! Amazing! According to Necedah’s website: “The open wetlands, meadows and sedge meadows provide habitat for wildlife including bog-haunter dragonfly, golden-winged warbler, whooping crane, and American bittern.” A link to the Necedah Wildlife Refuge-A great place to visit if you are visiting Wisconsin:
In landscaping, sedges are an important component in rain gardens. We use Carex vulpinoidea-Fox Sedge in our rain garden packages and seed mixes. Fox Sedge can tolerate standing water for a week, but can also withstand long stretches of hot dry soil. This summer during our drought Neil Diboll, Prairie Nursery owner, observed that the Fox Sedge on his property was robust and beautiful even under extreme drought conditions. The beautiful star shaped seed heads that appear on sedges are attractive, and the foliage stays green throughout the summer. Paired with the Fox Sedge, we offer Palm Sedge-Carex muskingumensis. Like the Fox Sedge, Palm Sedge tolerates wet or dry soils, loves clay and provides unique foliage in full to part sun.
There are exceptions to wetland dwelling sedges that can be excellent additions to a landscape. Ivory Sedge-Carex eburnea, is a dry site specialist that needs very little soil to grow. Growing only 11 inches tall, Ivory Sedge grows naturally in limestone rocks in partial shade, and is extremely drought tolerant-staying green all summer long. Pennsylvania Sedge-Carex pensylvanica is fine-textured groundcover; creeping by rhizomes; this sedge forms a unique “lawn-like” appearance that will grow in shade to part sun. Plantain Leaved Sedge-Carex plantaginea is quite unusual with wide leaves that shine almost neon-lime green in part sun to shade, living in alkaline soils, even in rocky limestone and dolomite rocks!
Often under utilized, sedges provide a unique texture paired with shade and sun loving wildflowers and grasses. Sedges green up earlier than other prairie grasses, so they are a nice spot of green alongside spring bloomers such as Prairie Spiderwort-Tradescantia bracteata, Lanceleaf Coreopsis-Coreposis lanceolata, Wild Geranium-Geranium maculatum, Wild Bleeding Heart-Dicentra exima and Columbine-Aquilegia canadensis. In low moist areas, try the Palm Sedge with Bottle Gentian-Gentiana andrewsii, Boneset-Eupatorium perfoliatum, Common Bluestar-Amsonia tabernaemontana and Marsh Phlox-Phlox glaberrima. Don’t forget their use in rain gardens helping to slow rain water and filter the moisture slowly into the soil improving soil quality and attracting a multitude of beneficial insects and birds that will enjoy the seed. Give sedges a try in your landscape!