Sedges differ from grasses by having a 3-angled stem and structurally different flowers where the female flowers are enclosed in a sac like structure called the perigynium, which is subtended by a single scale. Woolly Sedge is a perennial clump-forming native sedge, growing 6 to 40 inches high with unbranched light green stems (culms) with somewhat rough surfaces in the upper part and up to 3mm wide at mid length. Non-flowering stems are produced, flowering stems are usually around the edges of colonies.
The basal leaf sheaths are blade-less, reddish-purple and usually with a lattice of feather-like fibers (fibrillose). strongly cross-wrinkled on the front (rugose) and are indistinctly veined and tear easily. Ligules of leaf blades are 2 to 12 mm long.
The leaf blades are narrow, 2.2 to 4.5 mm wide and up to 20 inches long (50 cm), M shape when young except near the base and tip, (tip not long and thin), coarse, without hair, green in color, the midvein with a pronounced keel and are as long or longer than the inflorescence. There are 3 to 7 per stem.
The inflorescence is an elongated raceme, 5 to 30 cm long with 1 to 3 staminate spikes at the top, erect, the terminal spike on a 2 to 9 cm stalk. These are usually 1 to 4 cm long and only 2 to 4 mm wide. Below them are 1 to 3 pistillate spikes, the lower ones ascending and widely separated, the upper erect and just under the lower staminate spike. The pistillate spikes are densely crowded with 30 to 60 perigynia. (The bladder-like sacs that enclose the female flower and later the fruit are called perigynia, singular - perigynium). Pistillate spikes are 0.8 to 3.1 cm long and 1.7 to 3mm wide. The bracts that form at the base of the lower spikes also have a sharply pointed keel and the lowest pistillate bract may exceed the length of the inflorescence. These are usually without sheaths.
Each perigynium is pale yellowish green initially becoming pale brown at maturity with reddish-brown tips. The body is 2.4 to 5.2 mm long by 1.7 to 2.8 mm wide and tapers to a firm beak that is 0.8 to 1.6 mm long and has 2 minute straight, but angled outward, teeth. The overall shape is broadly ovoid, sort of broadly egg-shaped, the surface dense with fine hair obscuring the venation of 15 to 20 nerves. The scales of the pistillate perigynia have hair-less or rough margins, lance to ovate in shape, tapering to an acute tip or with an abrupt awn. These are 2.5 to 5.3 mm long and 0.8 to 1.6 mm wide, usually shorter and narrower than the perigynium. They have a green to tan midvein, membranous margins and remain persistent on the spike after the perigynia fall. There are three stigmas per pistillate floret and three stamens per staminate floret.
Seed: Mature fruit is a brown 3-angled ovate achene, 1.5 to 2.1 mm long, with a pointed base and tapering tip to the style which has a slight bend at its base. Florets are wind pollinated.
Habitat: Woolly Sedge grows a creeping, scaly, long-rhizomes root systems, forming clumps and colonies in wet to wet-mesic conditions such as in wet meadows, ditches, stream banks and other riparian shore areas. It is a plant of successional habitats, colonizing disturbed areas. Plants prefer full sun but will grow in partial sun.
Names: The genus name, Carex, is from the Latin, being the old name for Sedges. The species, pellita, refers to the fine dense hair on the perigynia looking as though 'clad in a woolly skin'. The author name for the plant classification - ‘Willd.’ which refers to Carl Ludwig Willdenow (1765-1812), German botanist, a founder of the study of the geographic distribution of plants. He was director and curator of the Botanic Garden of Berlin. For some years this species has been mistakenly referred to in many references as C. lanuginosa. The alternate common name of Broad-leaved Woolly Sedge is used to distinguish this species from C. lasiocarpa, the Narrow-leaved Woolly Sedge.
Comparisons: Woolly Sedge is a member of the sedges in the Section Paludosae, and has the distinguishing characteristics of wide M-shaped leaf blades, ladder-fibrillose basal sheaths, raceme type inflorescences with multiple spikes, upper spikes staminate and lower spikes pistillate, 3 stigmas per floret.
The most similar sedge like this, found in Minnesota, is C. lasiocarpa, the Narrow-leaved Woolly Sedge, where the leaf blades are only 0.7 to 2 mm wide, have a long-thin curled tip, the the midvein (and on the lower bracts) is not as pronounced, more rounded forming an inconspicuous keel. This sedge is not as widespread in the state as C. pellita.
Above: The staminate spikes. Drawing from Britton, N.L., and A. Brown. 1913. An illustrated flora of the northern United States, Canada and the British Possessions. 3 vols. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York.
Below: 2 stages of maturity of the pistillate spikes.
Below: 1st photo - mature perigynia. 2nd photo - leaf blade showing pronounced keel.
Below: 1st photo - young pistillate spike. 2nd photo - detail of staminate spike. 3rd photo - base of stems.
Below: Front and side of the blade sheath.
Woolly Sedge is one of over 150 sedges native to Minnesota. It is the most widespread Carex species in the state with all 87 counties reporting it. It is likewise, widespread In North America with all the lower Canadian Provinces reporting it except Nova Scotia and only 7 states in the U.S. not reporting it - all in the SE - those along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida and up to Georgia and the Carolinas.
At Eloise Butler it has been noted in the Garden on both the 1986 and 2009 Garden Plant Census.
References: Plant characteristics are generally from sources 1A, 32, W2, W3, W7 & W8 plus others as specifically applied. Distribution principally from W1, W2 and 28C. Planting history generally from 1, 4 & 4a. Other sources by specific reference. See Reference List for details.
Friends of the Wild Flower Garden, Inc. Text and photos are by G. D. Bebeau unless otherwise credited. "www.friendsofthewildflowergarden.org"