Turns out that Long-Beaked Sedge (Carex sprengelii) has all the qualities I am looking for in a grass-like plant for the shade garden.
Some may ask, how is a sedge different from a grass? The short answer is that sedges are like grasses, but different. A longer answer is that Sedges belong to a different family of plants, the Cyperaceae, as opposed to the grasses who belong to the Graminaceae. Grasses have round, hollow stems (except for the nodes), while Sedges have triangular, solid stems. The thing to remember is that many Sedges can play the role of short or medium-sized grasses in the garden.
So let’s get back to Long-Beaked Sedge, and why I like it so much. As you may have guessed, it prefers full to partial shade and is adaptable in terms of soil moisture. Its habit combines upright stems bearing attractive seed heads along with a waterfall of arching leaves.
At about 2′ tall, this plant is big enough to have substance but not so big as to get awkward in smaller spaces. It can fit right into the front or the middle of the border. Native throughout the Midwest and Great Plains, I think it is a good alternative to Japanese Forest Grass (Hakonechloa).
It’s a tough plant, but not aggressive. It forms clumps but doesn’t run, nor have I experienced any self-sowing. That clump in the first photo was formed by three plugs planted three years ago. As for toughness, in the photo above there’s another clump that’s holding its own at the base of a bird-feeder, often a difficult spot.
In terms of wildlife value, Long-Beaked Sedge is host plant for several moths and one butterfly species (the Appalachian Brown). Seeds are eaten by Eastern Towhees, various Sparrows, and a number of game birds. While this Sedge is deer resistant, anecdotal evidence suggests that it is attractive to Triceratopses. (If you want to know why we have a Triceratops in our garden, read this post.)
Do you have a favorite grass or grass-like plant for the shade garden?
Carex sprengelii is a great plant! Appreciate you taking time to highlight its use. Carex flaccosperma var. glaucodea (blue wood sedge) is a shade and part-shade workhorse in my garden. Blue wood sedge’s steel blue and slightly wider leaves create a wonderful backdrop for other plants, it covers bear ground and suppresses weeds well, and is a Midwestern native species.
I had not heard of Blue Wood Sedge – thanks for mentioning it!
It’s beautiful–glad to learn about it. It has started dawning on me how important natives are, and I love that this is a host plant.
It’s useful because I like to have some quiet plants as a counterpoint to the flowers.
That is a nifty sedge. I’ve seen it here and there, along walks in natural areas. We have a few species of natural and planted sedges in the back yard, but I think my favorite for shade is the grass plant Northern Sea Oats. I like its character and its color changes through the seasons. Plus, it’s a great grass for dried cut arrangements.
NSO is beautiful but for me it has been really aggressive and I have to struggle to keep it in check.
I find Northern Sea Oates spread a lot.
This is a really timely post for me, as I’m turning part of my yawn (NOT a typo) into pollinator habitat, and wanted something grassy-but-not-grass to use as a boundary. Thanks!
Hope it works well for you. There are other useful sedges in shade or part-shade, such as Pennsylvania Sedge. Good luck with your yawn project!
For several years, I had several tall and short grasses, and loved them all. Then they got big and trying to divide was a real challenge. My back couldn’t take them running and trying to keep them contained. Sounds like you have the right plant in the right place.
Dividing grasses can be a huge job! Fortunately most grasses need it only every ten years or so. Think I would have to hire someone if I were to do it again.
Interesting. I don’t think I’ve ever seen this one in the wild. I like it!
Wonder why. According to Wildflower.org its range includes NH.
That sounds like a great fit for you.xxx
It has been!
When I first was learning about such things, I had a little verse that helped me along. There are slight variations, but the one I learned was: Sedges have edges; rushes are round; grasses are hollow, straight to the ground.
There are so many Carex species. C. sprengelii doesn’t come close to Texas, but our C. texensis makes it up to southern Illinois.
I’ve heard a different version of that rhyme.
Sedge makes me cringe! I see it in catalogs, and wonder what I am missing. I have never met any of the garden varieties in nurseries here, so I suspect that they are unpopular. If I had seen a garden variety sedge, I did not recognize it as such. The only sedge that I am familiar with are weed sorts, and they are nasty! There are actually some that I must pull very soon from one of the creeks that flows through here. There are native sedges, but because they give me no trouble, I would not recognize them.
Well then best to stay away from them to the extent you can. We don’t really have weedy sedges here to my knowledge, though there are certainly weedy grasses.
Well, now that you mention it, pampas grass is worse than any of the sedges.
Excellent! Especially for the triceratops. I wonder if it would grow in dry shade?
I’ve heard it is sub-tropical.
It is lovely…. I do like Carex but only grow the ones that like sun. One day I will have more shade and will try out more. After all, Triceratopses are rare and should be encouraged in our gardens. 😆 I have to watch newly planted Carex as the hares like to nibble on them. I have a pretty bronze Carex comans, and also C. oshimensis Evergold which gets a bit tatty after a few years but sends out little baby clumps around it which can easily be replanted.
The Japanese sedges do seem to be the most popular ones at the garden centers but there are some excellent North American sedges.
I have a couple of Carex, C. testacea. For me for shade, Hakone grass. Your Carex sounds well-behaved and looks great. You may find a Triceratops nest in there, eventually–wouldn’t that be fun?
Yes, I wonder what the eggs are like.
This looks like a nice well-behaved one. The bane of my life when I came here was Carex pendula all over the place. A handsome plant but a beast to dig up and it seeds everwhere.
I planted C. muskingumensis years ago and decided I didn’t like it but it is impossible to get rid of.
I think most sedges should come with a warning. I have a variegated sedge which is very pretty. It doesn’t seed around but spreads in a relentless manner and clearly plans on taking over the whole border.
I need this one in my garden! When it comes to grasses, I’m always on the lookout for two descriptors: No self-seeding and clumping. And I love that it’s a compact one (relatively speaking) that you can tuck into spaces here and there. It’s now on the list 🙂
Yeah, I have Virginia Wild Rye which is a real nuisance for self-seeding.
Thanks for explaining the difference between a sedge and a grass … I’m on a big learning curve when it comes to grasses .. so this post is very interesting.
Hmmmm. I’ve added two sedges to a garden which just recently had none. Perhaps another one wouldn’t be the worst idea.
Is there a society of Carexophiles?
I afraid the only thing I would use with sedge is napalm, after spending years systematically taking out all the overgrown clumps and self-sown plants of care pendula from the borders and grass, we still get seedings coming up in areas with disturbed soil. It’s invasive here and the whole sedge family is on my blacklist.
I understand. But this one is well-behaved. Honestly.
I have this in my dry shade backyard, and it’s doing great. If a plant can survive what I have to offer back there, you know it’s tough. It does a great job giving me spring green along with my big root geranium. I buy a little more every year.
Glad to hear it is working for you!