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March 2008: Featured Plant
An Early Spring Sedge, Carex nigromarginata: Black-edged Sedge

Carex nigromarginata: Black-edged Sedge

Carex nigromarginata: Black-edged Sedge

You say that grass-like plants do not have flowers? If so, you are not alone. A cattle farmer once asked me about the identity of a grass in his field and I reasonably asked when it flowered. You would have thought I had impeached the Pope! "They don't have flowers", he replied.

They do, and those in the Cyperaceae family, the Sedges, have ones that are more like the familiar ones than those of the grasses in the Poaceae family. But of course they all have true flowers, double fertilization, and make seed containing an embryo and usually some endosperm. The Rushes (Juncaceae family) make true seeds inside of a capsule, the capsule being the fruit. The Sedges make single-seeded fruits like Sunflower 'seeds', called nutlets or achenes, in which the seed is almost free within an ovary wall. The Grasses make single-seeded fruits, called grains, in which a thin seed coat is fused with a thin ovary wall, which in turn is often enclosed in a persistent palea and lemma (the bran). Now that farmer knew about grass seed, but had not considered how it must have been made. If he were growing maize instead of cattle he certainly would have to have known who was who.

So this month's Cyperaceae taxon is among the first to flower in Spring, getting its specific epithet from the handsome black-edged scale that subtends and hides each flower that is neatly enclosed in an open-topped bag called a perigynium. But the image here, and of others that flower later show exerted stamens on terminal male flowers and exerted stigmas on more basal female flowers.

The plant itself is very easily taken as a small, retiring bunch grass. But it is evergreen, likes dry woods and shade, and is virtually indestructable. The one shown here is one of about fifty that many years ago I spared in my weeding of an upper terrace because I thought them neat and hoped they would spread. This was years before plant taxonomy and I was eventually pleased to discover it to be a Carex rather than a grass. Unfortunately, it only slowly increases in diameter and it produces very few seed and I have yet to recognize seedlings. Divisions should do well, though I have not yet tried them with this species.

Images by Glenn Galau ©