Sedges

Carex, Schoenoplectus, Scirpus, and other genera

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Photo of eastern woodland sedge plant growing among leaf litter.
Eastern woodland sedge is likely the most common sedge in Missouri. It grows in many habitats, including lawns.
Charles T. Bryson, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.org
Family

Cyperaceae (sedges)

Description

Like grasses, sedges are annuals or perennials, nonwoody, with linear, parallel-veined leaves whose lower portions sheath the stems. The flowers are spikes: the tiny flower lacks petals and sepals but is enclosed in scales (tiny bracts). The spikes can be in arranged in spikes, racemes, panicles, or umbels.

Key features of sedges: Stems are very often triangular in cross-section and are solid, not hollow. Leaves are usually 3-ranked (they come out on 3 sides of the stem) (while true grasses are 2-ranked, opposite). Leaf sheaths are usually tightly closed or fused (in grasses, the sheaths are split open lengthwise). Flower clusters often have 1 or more leaves spreading out from the base. Fruits are 2- or 3-sided achenes (dry, single-seeded fruits that don’t split open).

Similar species: Plants in the rush family typically have basal leaves; round, solid stems; and flowers with 3 sepals and 3 sepal-like petals. Fruits are many-seeded capsules that split open lengthwise.

Size

Height: some species to 4 feet, but most are much shorter.

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Photo of oak or white-tinged sedge plant with several blooming flower heads.
Oak Sedge (White-Tinged Sedge)
Oak sedge blooms in early spring in upland forests and is scattered nearly statewide.

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Photo of Gray’s, or globe sedge showing leaves and fruits.
Gray’s Sedge (Globe Sedge)
Gray’s sedge is a great example of how important the fruiting parts of sedges are for identification.

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Photo of James's sedge plant showing leaves and fruits.
James’s Sedge
James’s sedge is scattered throughout Missouri. It grows in forests and on ledges and bases of bluffs.

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Photo of Short’s sedge, closeup of fruiting clusters.
Short’s Sedge
The female spikes of Short’s sedge are densely packed cylinders up to 1½ inches long.

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Photo of Bush’s sedge, dried specimen on blue background, showing fruits.
Bush’s Sedge
Bush’s sedge is common nearly statewide. Male flowers form below the female flowers of the terminal spike.

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Photo of fox sedge clump, showing fruiting clusters, stems, and leaves.
Fox Sedge
The fruiting clusters of fox sedge are elongated and densely packed. The protruding, hairy-looking awns make them look like fox tails.

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Photo of fox sedge showing flower clusters, stems, and leaves.
Fox Sedge
Fox sedge is common statewide and grows in a wide range of low, moist places. It has numerous stalkless flowers crowded into long spikes.

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Photo of chairmaker’s rush plants growing in shallow water of a lake.
Chairmaker’s Rush (Common Threesquare)
Chairmaker’s rush is scattered nearly statewide. It grows along the edges of streams, ponds, lakes, and in marshes and ditches.

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Photo of chairmaker’s rush, closeup showing sharply triangular stems.
Chairmaker’s Rush (Common Threesquare)
Chairmaker’s rush is also called common threesquare for its strongly triangular stems.

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Photo of chairmaker’s rush, closeup showing flower cluster.
Chairmaker’s Rush (Common Threesquare)
The conical flower clusters of chairmaker’s rush are in groups of 1-4 on wiry, green, sharply triangular stems.

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Photo of chairmaker’s rush, closeup showing foliage.
Chairmaker’s Rush (Common Threesquare)
Chairmaker’s rush grows to about 3 feet tall and grows from stout, long-creeping rhizomes.

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Photo of chairmaker’s rush, closeup of blooming flower cluster.
Chairmaker’s Rush (Common Threesquare)
Each conical spikelet of chairmaker’s rush contains several florets, each with its own pistil with branching style.
Habitat and conservation

Sedges are usually found in wet habitats. Missouri has more than 200 species in the sedge family. Distinguishing between these grasslike plants can be difficult even for botanists, but it’s not hard to learn some basics about this common group. Start by memorizing the phrase “sedges have edges,” which will help you remember their distinctive triangular stems. In many cases, you can tell a plant is a sedge just by touching it!

image of Sedges distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Statewide. Some species are fairly widespread and common. Others are rare or limited to certain parts of the state.

Status

Globally, there are about 4,000 species in the sedge family. In Missouri, more than 60 of our sedges are Species of Conservation Concern; several of them are listed as critically imperiled. Considering the family’s very large size, sedges have a low direct economic importance for humans. Identifying sedge species is tricky even for botanists, who often need to see the rootstocks and use microscopes to examine tiny details of the nutlike fruits.

Human connections

Some sedges are used as ornamentals. Ancient Egyptians used one species to make papyrus paper, and its buoyant stems to make boats. The infant Moses’s basket may have been woven from sedges. Parts of some species are edible. Chinese water chestnuts are the corms (rootstocks) of one type of sedge.

Ecosystem connections

Sedges are very important for stabilizing soils in wetlands and stream and lake margins. Their fruits provide food for many kinds of waterfowl and other animals. Dense stands provide important habitat. One species, sawgrass, is the dominant plant in the Florida Everglades.