Crested Sedge
Carex cristatella
Sedge family (Cyperaceae)

Description: This perennial sedge is about 1–2' tall. Infertile shoots produce rosette-like clusters of arching leaves, while fertile shoots produce culms (stems) with alternate leaves; culms of the latter terminate in narrow inflorescences. The culms are light green, 3-angled, and glabrous. The leaf blades are up to 14" long and 8 mm. (1/3") across; they are light green, glabrous, and longitudinally furrowed. These leaf blades are ascending or arching. The outer 2 sides of each leaf sheath are light green and glabrous, while its inner side is light green to membranous and glabrous. These sheaths are wrapped tightly around their culms.

The inflorescence of each fertile shoot consists of 5-14 sessile spikelets along a rachis (central stalk) up to 2" in length. The culm underneath this inflorescence is devoid of leaves for several inches below. At the base of the lowest spikelet, there is usually a slender bract that is narrowly linear and up to 16 mm. (2/3") long; there may be one or more smaller bracts that are partially hidden by other spikelets. The spikelets are densely distributed along each rachis and they are partially overlapping. Each spikelet is 6-8 mm. (1/4–1/3") across, light green while immature, globoid in shape, and prickly in appearance because of the beaks of the perigynia. The staminate florets, if present, are located at the bottom of the spikelet underneath the pistillate florets and their perigynia. In each spikelet, the perigynia of the pistillate florets are densely packed together and widely spreading to ascending. The perigynia are about 3.0–4.5 mm. long and 1.5 mm. across, flattened ovoid-lanceoloid in shape, and narrowly winged along the middle of their margins; they taper gradually to long narrow beaks at their apices, while their bottoms are wedge-shaped and somewhat truncate. Both the inner and outer sides of these perigynia have several fine longitudinal veins. Pistillate scales originate from the bases of perigynia and they partially cover their outer surfaces. These scales are lanceolate in shape and 2-3 mm. long; immature scales have green-veined centers, while their margins are membranous. With age, the pistillate scales become more brown. The blooming period occurs from late spring to early summer, lasting about 1-2 weeks. The florets are cross-pollinated by wind. About a month later, mature perigynia become brown and fall to the ground; they are sometimes blown about by the wind. Each perigynium contains a single achene. Mature achenes are 1.0-1.5 mm. in length, oblongoid-ovoid in shape, and rather flattened. The root system produces white fibrous roots and short rhizomes. This sedge forms tufts of leaves and culms from its rhizomes, while spreading to new areas by reseeding itself.

Cultivation: The preference is full sun to light shade, wet to moist conditions, and soil containing loam or silt-loam with decaying organic material. Most vegetative growth occurs during the spring and early summer. Occasional standing water is tolerated.

Range & Habitat: The native Crested Sedge is occasional in most areas of Illinois; in the SE area of the state, it is less common than elsewhere. Habitats include openings in moist woodlands, swamps, soggy thickets, wet prairies, sedge meadows, sloughs, low-lying areas along streams, powerline clearances in woodlands, and ditches. This sedge occurs in both degraded and higher quality habitats.

Faunal Associations: The caterpillars of various butterflies, skippers, and moths feed on wetland sedges (Carex spp.); see the Lepidoptera Table for a listing of these species. Other insects that prefer such sedges as a food source include sedge grasshoppers (Stethophyma spp.), semi-aquatic leaf beetles (Donacia spp., Plateumaris spp.), billbugs (Sphenophorus spp.), larvae of miscellaneous flies, seed bugs, plant bugs, aphids, and leafhoppers (especially Cosmotettix spp.). The seeds and seedheads of wetland sedges are an important source of food to various wetland birds, including ducks, rails, and granivorous songbirds (see Bird Table). Most mammalian herbivores feed on the foliage sparingly; meadow voles feed on both the foliage and rootstocks. During the ice age, fossilized dung in caves of the western United States reveals that the Imperial Mammoth consumed the foliage of wetland sedges and other kinds of grassy vegetation (Martin, 2007). This finding probably generalizes to the Columbian Mammoth as well. The range of this latter mammoth extended into eastern United States; it occupied savanna and grassland habitats.

Photographic Location: A powerline clearance in Busey Woods, Urbana, Illinois.

Comments: This sedge has foliage that is quite similar to other sedges (Carex spp.). However, its spikelets are quite distinctive because of their globoid shape and prickly appearance. Whether they are immature and green, or mature and brown, the spikelets of Crested Sedge (Carex cristatella) are attractive; the mature perigynia persist on their rachises longer than those of most sedges, or so it seems to me. Similar sedges usually have spikelets that are more ovoid (longer than they are broad) and/or their spikelets are more distant from each other along their rachises. One species that Crested Sedge can be confused with is the common Troublesome Sedge (Carex molesta). However, the latter species has only 2-5 spikelets per inflorescence and the bottoms of its perigynia are more rounded, rather than wedge-shaped and somewhat truncate.