Who Carex Any Way?

We are planting thousands of new plants this year in our Children’s and Asian-themed gardens, which are being built. Perhaps no genus is better represented than Carex, or sedges. I absolutely love this diverse genus. There are a number of ornamental options on the market, with many of them already on display in several of Wellfield’s gardens, but this year it is the various unassuming straight species I am most interested in planting.

Before I launch into extolling the virtues of this group of plants, I just need to correct one annoying misprinted point. I do not know how many horticulture websites I have been on, which should know better, that call them grasses! While they may look like grasses, they are not even in the grass family (Poaceace); rather, Carex belong to the Cyperaceae family.

Gardening with Carex is just plain fun. There is a species for about any condition imaginable, since the genus spans the globe. Need a fine textured plant for dry shade,? Got it. Need a plant for full sun and wet? Check.

I asked Scott Namestnik of Orbis Environmental Consulting, a self-identifying Carex freak, what he loves about the genus. He says:

  • Carex provide structure.  Sedges are in every natural plant community, in every range of wetness/dryness and in every soil type, and they often create the backbone upon which natural communities develop. If nature finds them this important, we should too.
  • Carex can add to the aesthetics of a garden because of their varied forms. Some are clump forming, others colony forming. Some are strictly upright, others are reclined. Some have broader leaves, others very narrow leaves.
  • Carex provide texture. Sedges range in texture from soft hairy to rough to smooth, and from rigid to lax. This can be important in a landscaped setting.
  • Carex provide color. Every variation of green can be found in the foliage of our sedges… blue-green, gray-green, green-green, yellow-green, orange-green.  Some have red-purple sheaths or scales on the flowering parts as well.
  • Carex are important for wildlife. Some sedges are used by ants, birds, and other wildlife for food.  Others provide habitat for ants and other insects because of their growth form. Some sedges grow in dense tussocks that create microhabitat for other plant species, that in turn provide habitat for other wildlife species.
  • Some Carex are good for erosion control. Some sedges have underground stems called rhizomes that lead them to form colonies that can reduce erosion.
  • Carex are like the warblers of the plant world- confusing because [they are] hard to tell them apart…but stunningly beautiful when you look at them closely.

I included several different species of Carex in some new plantings as a part of the functional design layer. This layer’s purpose, as the name implies, is largely “functional” rather than aesthetic. This layer might contain plants whose role might be weed suppression, erosion control, nutrient accumulator or trap crop. Carex species are especially valuable in this layer. Come to the Garden this summer and see if you can find a Carex near you.

Josh Steffen, Horticulture and Facilities Manager


One comment

  1. Oh, those can be prolific when they get going. We have significant area in a riparian zone that is dominated by them.. Those that grow too close to the water are messy to dig out, and those that grow in the granite path are just difficult to dig! We are pretty harsh with them, but they look great when the regenerate.


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