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Sedges - unsung heroes in wildlife gardens

The vast majority of sedges belong to the genus Carex, which in North America would contain several hundred species. At first glance, they look like grasses and they are actually a great alternative in shadier and wetter places where many grasses cannot grow. The leaves have a strong midvein and if you draw your thumb an forefinger up the leaf, it may feel quite rough. The stems of sedges are triangular rather than round and they lack the swellings at the nodes that are present in grasses. The flowers, which appear in the spring on stalks, contain white staminate flowers and yellow pistillate flowers in separate locations. The seed bearing head on sedges is the most noticeable feature in distinguishing them from grasses; it is called a perigynium and looks like a sac that tapers to a point due to the presence of teeth. The inflorescence, a cluster of perigynia, is spherical or tubular and looks spiky.

  Sedge flowers  
  In this particular case, the male part of the flowers are above the female.  

 

Sedges are often overlooked by gardeners because they do not produce showy flowers; however, what they lack in colour, they more than make up for by providing texture. They are fantastic for wildlife gardens by acting as a host plant for many insects, supporting birds with their seeds, and by providing cover. Many sedges grow quite well in shade. They can also be grown as a natural lawn substitute and since many of them produce fibrous root mats, they are good for erosion control. If you do some research you will probably find a sedge that suits your needs.

It is well beyond the scope of this website to provide information on every sedge out there. Here are a list of commonly available sedges that would be appropriate for a garden setting.

 

Sedges of woodlands and prairie

Carex appalachica (Appalachian sedge) native

This sedge resembles a fine grass and it is a native of dry woods. The sedge flowers in spring and given that it only grows 10 inches high, it would make a good substitute for grass in dry shade. It will not tolerate the prolonged wetness that you would find in heavy clays.

Carex brevior (Plains Oval Sedge) native

Plains Oval Sedge is quite adaptable and therefore easy to grow in a garden. It also tolerates dryness well and part-shade. The leaves are less than 1 foot high and this plant can be used as a lawn alternative in low traffic areas. With the inflorescences the plant will reach nearly four feet high.

 

Carex eburnea (Bristle Leaf Sedge) native

Bristle Leaf Sedge would be a good candidate as a lawn substitute where the amount of sun would make it difficult to maintain a lawn because it only grows 10 inches high and has fine leaves. It can tolerate dry and shady conditions is found in wooded areas with limestone rock.

 

Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania Sedge) native

This cool season sedge is quite adaptable to garden conditions as it grows naturally in dry upland forests. This sedge is sod forming and spreads in moderate amounts. It would make a good lawn substitute in shady low traffic areas with its fine leaves that only grow to about 10 inches.

  Carex pensylvanica  
  This Pennsylvania sedge was photographed in the dry shade of a maple tree and while it grows slowly, it does a lot better than grass would.  

 

Carex plantaginea (Plantain Sedge) native

This sedge is quite similar to the Carex platyphylla in that it has broad leaves about an inch thick and grows well in the shadier parts of the garden, but, it naturally prefers soils richer in organic matter that are better are retaining moisture. It would grow well with low spring flowering plants such as Trillium.

  Carex plantaginea with flowerheads  
  The photo shows plantain sedge in flower. In this sedge, the white pistillate flowers emerge before the pollen bearing staminate flowers in order to encourage cross-pollination.  

 

Carex platyphylla (Broadleaf Sedge) native

The leaves of this plant are about 1 inch wide while and are less than a foot tall, so it certainly lives up to its name. It is quite an adaptable plant and would serve well as a filler. It tolerates shade well and could serve as a lawn substitute. This plant is similar to Carex plantaginea except for the colour; the broadleaf sedge has bluish green leaves.

Carex rosea (Rosy Sedge) native

Carex rosea is an adapatable sedge that prefers part shade rather than complete shade. It is tolerates dryness well and can grow in sandy soils. It is not recommended for clay soils. The leaves grow up to 1 foot long. It is a true woodland sedge. native

 

 

Sedges of wetlands

Some of these sedges are strictly wetland plants and a few others may grow in gardens where some moisture is maintained. Typically, these latter plants grow naturally in bottomlands where drainage is slower and along streams or seeps.


Carex aurea (Golden Sedge) native

This is a small sedge that will spread easily if given the right conditions. It prefers damp soil that overlays limestone next to bodies of water. It is a cool season grass. If your garden backs on to water, then this would be a good sedge.


Carex bebbi native

This cool season sedge needs a permanently moist soil to survive. It is a native of wet meadows and marshlands that are permanently submerged. It also needs an alkaline soil and full sun to do well. It grows about 3 feet high and can achieve full maturity in one season.

 

Carex comosa  (Bristly sedge) native

If you have an area with permanently wet soil in full or part-sun, then this plant is a must. It grows up to 4 feet tall with tubular female spikes that are nearly 3 inches long, hence it is also known as the bottlebrush sedge. It provides food for many different insects as well as seeds for birds. It is widespread in Eastern USA and Ontario.

  Donacia sp.  
  Donacia is a common beetle in wetlands where its larvae feed on submerged root systems. In this stage of their life-cycle, they obtain oxygen by using some of the plant's own supply. They are associated with a number of wetland plants including several sedges.  


Carex crinita (Fringed sedge) native

 Carex crinita might grow quite well in regular garden soil as it seems adaptable. It can grow in anything from standing water to soil that suffers occasional dryness.  This plant is quite easily identified by the pendulous spikelets that are up to 4 inches long and supports lots of insencts. It grows about 2-4 feet high and will tolerate liight shade. 


Carex granularis (Limestone Meadow sedge) native

Carex granularis grows just over 2 feet high and needs a good amount of sunlight. It does not tolerate sandy and dry soils. It is very happy in wet soils especially those that form on alkaline rocks. It feeds a wide range of insects.


Carex grayi  (Gray’s sedge) native

If you have a shady garden with moist soil, then this sedge is particularly recommended due to the large numbers of insects and birds that it supports. It grows to about 3 feet high and has distinctive spike that looks like a mace, which was used as a weapon in historical times. The plant can be found naturally in woods next to rivers or in bottomlands where occasional flooding occurs as well as in wetlands.

  Gray's Sedge  
  Gray's sedge with its distinctive flowerheads that resemble a mace  


Carex hystericina  (Porcupine sedge) native

This sedge is a native of fens and other neutral or alkaline wetlands. It grows up to 2 - 3 feet high in full sun and supports a wide range of insects and birds.

Carex lupulina  (Hop sedge) native

Carex lupulina is native to forested wetlands so it can tolerate light shade. It grows up to 4 feet and it is yet another wetland sedge that produces attractive pistillate spikes and supports a variety of wildlife.



Carex stipata  (Prickly Sedge) native

This sedge has fine leaves and will tolerate some dryness if planted in part-shade. They have an inflorescence that is up to 4 inches long because it is made up of several spikelets combined. This sedge is quite adaptable and would probably work quite well in a garden where the soil is moist.

Carex stricta (Tussock Sedge) native

If your garden backs on to some sort of wetland, then it is worthwhile planting this sedge.The leaves support a range of herbivorous insects and the seeds are food various wetland birds as well as muskrats. It is native to shallow water where it forms a dense clump that provides good cover for small animals. It grows about 3 feet high and wide in full sun or shade. It will spread using runners if the opportunity exists. It tends to grow on a base of old leaves to form tussocks, hence the name.


Carex vulpinoidea  (Brown Fox Sedge) native

This sedge is quite grass like with its thin blades. It grows up to 3 feet high in full sun and likes wet areas. Its supports lots of insects and provides cover for birds when it grows en masse.

 


 

Reference Native Ferns Moss and Grasses (2008) by W. Cullina.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main page

Setting up a wildlife garden

Plants for butterflies

Plants for bees

Plants for hummingbirds

Plants for birds

Plant map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main page

Setting up a wildlife garden

Plants for butterflies

Plants for bees

Plants for hummingbirds

Plants for birds

Plant map

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Main page

Setting up a wildlife garden

Plants for butterflies

Plants for bees

Plants for hummingbirds

Plants for birds

Plant map