In the Garden | Landscaping Superstars | Gardening

Remarkable plants in natural spaces can be landscaping superstars when gardeners learn to harness their natural tendencies and display their most virtuous attributes. A group of plants that I have often underestimated are sedges (Carex spp.).

These hardy native perennials have a grass-like appearance and interesting flower structures, ranging from tiny clumps to spiny balls. Although they resemble grasses, there are several differences between each plant group, the main distinction being the angular stems of sedges, which contrast with the rounded stems of grass species. And so, many apply the common identifying mantra “sedges have edges” in reference to the shape of their stems.

When I think of sedges in the wild, I usually think of wetland ecosystems, but the sedge genus is incredibly diverse, with species inhabiting nearly every ecosystem on Earth. In fact, over 150 species are native to Illinois. So there really is a sedge for every situation.

As landscape plants, sedges thrive in an equally diverse range of site conditions. Many of the species commonly employed in the built environment are hardworking generalists in nature. They are plants that thrive in a range of conditions, lending themselves well to the demands of urban plantings.

Pennsylvania sedge (C. pennsylvanica) is one of the most common species I see in cultivation. Its claim to fame is its ability to handle conditions from dry soil to full shade. With a shorter stature rarely exceeding 1 foot tall, this hardy perennial is an excellent plant for shady gardens interspersed with ferns. Its incredibly fine texture accentuates the fern’s coarse foliage and it can tolerate very heavy shade. It can make a wonderful groundcover, spreading by rhizomes to create a carpet of fine, feathery leaves. I’ve also seen it used as a low maintenance alternative to lawn, requiring only mowing two to three times a year.

Rose sedge (C. rosea) is another shorter species that offers great versatility in the landscape. It does best in shade, but I’ve seen it grow in full sun in the wild. It can tolerate just about any soil condition, from dry to very wet. The foliage is a dark green color and very fine textured, making it another wonderful accent plant to place among other coarser textured or taller perennials.

Throughout most of its native range, this plant is evergreen, retaining green foliage throughout the winter season. When combined with plantings of spring wildflowers, pink sedge provides a wispy carpet of green to frame emerging early-season blooms.

For wetter sites or rain gardens, I really enjoy ovate swamp sedge, also known as palm sedge (C. muckingumensis). This plant does well in sun or shade and can reach heights of nearly 3 feet when exposed to full sun. It tolerates soil compaction and clay soils very well, making it a great addition to problematic wetlands. The attractive bright green foliage has a coarser appearance with larger leaves that are densely arranged along its triangular stems to create its unique texture. This plant also offers fall color as it turns golden yellow.

I really liked the plantations of palm sedges at the edge of ponds or the banks of waterways. It works wonderfully in rain gardens, where its unique arching foliage can help accent landscaping such as drainage paths or rock-lined creeks. Its stiff stems also help slow incoming runoff and reduce its erosive energy.

If you want to add native plants like sedges to your landscape, the Friends of Grand Prairie are once again hosting their annual Native Plant Sale. There are over 50 species available this year offering a plethora of interesting foliage and beautiful flowers. Plus, all of the plants on this list support our native wildlife and help diversify plant and animal life in your neighborhood.

All sales will be handled online this year, with the online store scheduled to open at 8 a.m. on May 1 and plant pickup the week of May 16 at Urbana. For more information, visit the Grand Prairie Friends website at grandprairiefriends.org.

Ryan Pankau is a Horticulture Educator with UI Extension, serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois, and Vermilion counties. This column also appears on his “Garden Scoop” blog at go.illinois.edu/gardenscoopblog.

Terri S. Tomasini