Text and photos by Elaine Mills, Certified Master Gardener
As local plant sales and nurseries carry more straight species and cultivars of some Mid-Atlantic native grasses, commercial and residential landscapers are beginning to recognize both the ornamental characteristics and value to wildlife of these native plants. Native sedges may not be as familiar to gardeners, but this spring, you might want to try growing one or more of the following easily-obtained sedges that work well in the home landscape. Sedges expand the palette of plants suitable for shady locations and are attractive as low-growing specimen plants, ground covers, and even lawn substitutes.
Carex pensylvanica is native to open woods and thickets in the eastern half of North America. It has a fountaining habit with soft, delicate, arching, semi-evergreen leaves, reaching a height and spread of 6 to 12 inches. Insignificant flowers appear at the top of rough stems from April to July, and the foliage turns sandy tan in the fall. Its leaves provide cover for birds that also feed on the seed. This sedge is attractive when used as an underplanting for ferns and other low-growing shade perennials such as blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium), wild geranium (Geranium maculatum), eastern woodfern (Dryopteris marginalis), and sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum).
Some homeowners use Carex pensylvanica as a lawn substitute as it does well in dry conditions, tolerates heavy shade, and is resistant to deer grazing. It has a non-invasive creeping foliage that spreads by rhizomes to form dense mats. It does not grow well from seed but instead should be planted from plugs 6 to 12 inches on center in either the fall or spring. It can be kept as an unmown lawn of 6 to 7 inches or mown several times per year at 3 to 4 inches. If needed, its foliage can be cut to the ground in early spring before new growth occurs to keep a tidy appearance.
Carex appalachica (Appalachian sedge)
Carex appalachica is native to dry woods of eastern North America from Ontario and Quebec to Georgia. A more robust plant than Carex pensylvanica, it grows in dense mounded tufts with narrow, deep green, finely-textured leaves which reach a height of 6 to 12 inches and a spread of 12 to 18 inches. It thrives in part shade to full shade and is drought tolerant; it won’t tolerate wetness. Its May-blooming flowers are inconspicuous, but provide nectar to native insects and seed to birds and turtles. It is also the host to skipper and satyr caterpillars.
Carex appalachica can be used in a border planting along a walkway, tucked under shrubs as substitute for non-native liriope, or combined with other shade-loving plants, such as eastern columbine (Aquilegia canadense), dwarf crested iris (Iris cristata), and white wood aster (Eurybia divaricata). It spreads to form colonies, making it good as a ground cover for soil stabilization and erosion control on slopes.
Carex plantaginea (Plantain-leaf sedge)
Carex plantaginea, the most ornamental of the sedges, is native to rich deciduous woods in eastern North America from Quebec to South Carolina. It is semi-evergreen with foliage that is refreshed when new foliage emerges in mid-April. The leaves are a striking lime-green color with three prominent veins and a puckered surface, leading to its alternate common name “seersucker sedge.” In spring, striped maroon and green flower spikes rise above the foliage. It is a host plant for several woodland butterflies and a food source for birds.
The mature Carex plantaginea is about 1 foot in height with an equal spread. When grouped, this sedge makes an effective ground cover or border for woodland trails — a perfect native substitute for invasive liriope and non-native mondo grass. It is also a lovely companion for native ground covers such as wild ginger (Asarum canadense), hairy alumroot (Heuchera villosa), and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). It does best in moist woodlands with light to medium shade, although it can adapt to difficult dry shaded sites. Established plants are unpalatable to deer.
Care of Sedges
When proper light and soil moisture requirements are met, these native sedges require little annual attention. They can be planted in either spring or fall, and during the first several seasons will need little care beyond combing or raking of foliage and removal of dead leaves by hand. They can be lifted and split any time during active growth and can also be cut back at that time to see immediate new shoots.
Other local native sedges to investigate include meadow sedge (Carex flaccosperma), tussock sedge (Carex stricta), and wood sedge (Carex blanda). See the “Buy Natives” tab on the Plant NOVA Natives web site (www.plantnovanatives.org) for listings of 2018 native plant sales and native-only sellers where these species can be obtained.
I For more details on these species, refer to the Digital Atlas of the Flora of Virginia.