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Plant of the Month

May 2017 Plant of the Month 

Carex pensylvanica Lamarck, Upland or Pennsylvania Sedge

May’s Plant of the Month is one of New Jersey most wide-spread sedges, Upland Sedge. Found throughout the state on dry, usually sandy, acidic, open ground or beneath open canopies of pine and oak, this sedge does not tolerate saturated conditions.  For this reason the plant is often cited as an indicator of upland or non-wetland habitat.  Mary Hough (1983) recorded voucher specimens from every county except Cumberland and Bergen.  South Jersey botanists know it is a common plant in Cumberland County.  Its presence in Bergen County  apparently remains unconfirmed.

Carex pensylvanica is a member of the Carex section Acrocystis (formerly section Montanae).  Botanists that are familiar with the genus Carex know the group is divided by taxonomists into as many as 56 sections. The section  Acrocystis is a group of  small sedges with loose or densely cespitose rhizomes (FNA, Vol. 23).  Carex pensylvanica is distinguished from the other members of the subsection by a number of features associated with the plant’s habit, achene size and shape.  Most field botanists identify this plant by its widely spaced rhizomes, creeping through the upper soil.  The  reddish rhizomes are stoloniferous and covered by distinct scales.  The flowering stems as shown in the photo above reveal 1-3 upright spikes.  Few other sedges resemble this species, yet a closely related sedge, Carex lucorum Willdenow, can be confused with Upland Sedge. However,  the perigynium beak of C. pensylvanica  is very short (< 1mm, usually no more than 0. 5 mm), while the beak of C. lucorum  is 1- 1.6 mm long (Voss, 1972). The latter sedge has culms scabrous below the inflorescence and is generally a coarser, stiffer plant than C. pensylvanica.   Other members of this sedge section are either cespitose or identified by other achene and perigynium characteristics.

Moerman (1998) does not list any Native America uses for the Upland Sedge.   We do know, however, that many similar sedges and grasses were used as fiber to weave baskets, mats and other woven utilitarian items, as early as 19,000 years ago (Meadowcroft Rock Shelter, PA).  The fact that Native American’s understood the benefits of sedges and grasses should be a lesson to the modern Americans.  And that lesson is of a diminutive, relatively non-descript plant that can be important to both the natural ecosystem and its human inhabitants that depend on the fibers of such a small plant.

JRA, 5/2017 

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