The genus Carex is a member of the sedge family and is a large genus with over 1,000 different species found throughout the world. They are a part of the same family as Cyperus papyrus, the plant the ancient Egyptians used to make paper.
They look like grasses, but botanically are called sedges because of certain features. A little rhyme goes “sedges have edges…” because some of them have sharp cutting edges and the stems make a triangular cross-section. Also, unlike the ornamental grasses, the flowers of sedges are generally insignificant, so they are chiefly foliage plants.
Carex form clumps or tufts of grass-like foliage which comes in a range of colors from greens, blues, yellows, browns, oranges and some striking variegations.
Because this is such a large genus, there is a wide variety of appearances among the Carex. Some are very upright with leaves that curl at the tips, while others will be low and mounding with long flowing leaves that look like a waterfall spilling over a wall.
Some Carex spread by rhizomes that will slowly creep along the ground and make good ground-cover options, although none are invasive or aggressive. A gardener can find a Carex for sun or shade, for a boggy area or a dry spot.
Because they are evergreen they are great choices for year-round interest in the garden and they also make fantastic container plants either as a focal point or an accent. (Click on photos to enlarge)
Carex buchananii - Leatherleaf Sedge
Carex comans 'New England Hair'
Also from New Zealand, C. comans has long, narrow, drooping leaves with curling tips and comes in a variety of foliage colors.
Carex albula - 'Frosty Curls'
The plant sold as ‘Frosty Curls’ is actually Carex albula and grows in a clump of pale-green leaves with blond curls at the tips.
Carex elata ‘Bowles Golden’
Also known as ‘Aurea’ this sedge will give you a jolt of yellow with its golden leaves and green margins. It is deciduous liking full to partial sun and moist soil, to 30 inches tall and wide.
Carex flagellifera Copper Sedge
Another sedge for the garden from New Zealand, C. flagellifera is a fine-textured upright tuft with an arching or floppy top. It comes in a gorgeous copper to bronze to shiny green with yellow highlights. Another sedge with curly leaf tips which grows to 20 inches tall and wide in full sun.
Carex morrowii ‘Ice Dance’
From Japan, this sedge creeps along the ground to make a great groundcover in partial sun or shade. Wide green leaves with lighter margins also look great in a container (see container design of the month!). To 15 inches tall.
Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’
A striking clump of evergreen foliage with a creamy to yellow stripe bordered by green is an eye-catcher. It will get about 12 inches tall and 18 inches wide, full sun to partial shade.
Carex testacea Orange Sedge
Bronzy green in the spring and summer and electric orange in the winter, this carex is a great one for winter interest in the garden. ‘Prairie Fire’ has a bit more red in the leaves than the species. Full sun to 18 inches tall and wide.
Origin: Found throughout the world. Many are native to northern temperate regions, although many of the garden cultivars originate from New Zealand native species.
Culture: Carex are very easy grass-like plants like tend to like damp, sunny locations although some will adapt to dry garden conditions and some species can handle some shade.
Pests and Diseases: None here in the Pacific Northwest, although some of the brown-leaved species from New Zealand are susceptible to root-mealy bugs in hot climates
Maintenance: Most Carex species are evergreen so it is a good idea to periodically cut them back in the spring to rejuvenate the plant and remove winter damaged foliage.
For deciduous species cut back old growth in spring when you see the new growth starting.
Propagation: Divide clumps in late spring.