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. Quill Sedge is a native perennial densely tufted sedge commonly forming tussocks (or hummocks) in wet areas. The slender flowering stems (culms) grow 8 to 35 inches high, often nodding, somewhat rough edges in the upper parts, brown at the base. Both flowering and non-flowering (vegetative) stems are produced. Vegetative stems are very short with a few leaves clustered at their tops.
The leaf sheaths on the front are whitish-mottled, smooth, slender, tight, with U shaped summits, just slightly prolonged beyond the collar, and membranous (hyaline) on the back. Sheaths may have fine hair when viewed under 30x magnification. There are longitudinal veins on the outer surfaces. Ligules are membranous and 1 to 2 mm long, wider than long.
The leaf blades are very narrow, 1.3 to 2.5 mm wide and from 15 to 35 cm long ( 6 to 14 inches). There are 3 to 5 per flowering stem, vegetative stems have a few blades at the top of the stem. Blades are slightly V shaped when young, otherwise flat.
The inflorescence is in racemose form, flexible and often nodding as it is thin and wiry, and consists of 3 to 8 distinct or loosely adjacent spikes, not overlapping, usually all gynecandrous, that is with the staminate and pistillate florets on the same spike with the pistillate above. Usually the staminate portion of the spike is quite small and lower spikes may be all pistillate. The lowest spikes may have internodes of 7 to 17 mm, the next spike 6 to 10 mm. The entire inflorescence is elongate, from 2.5 to 5 cm long and 7 to 10 mm wide. Each spike is ovoid to globose in shape when nearing maturity, about 4 to 10 mm long and 3.5 to 6 mm wide, with a tapered to club-like base and and a rounded tip. The bracts that form at the base of the lower spikes are scale-like or very short.
The perigynia are erect to ascending, brown in color at maturity, ovate to broadly ovate in shape and 2.8 to 4 mm long and 1.4 to 1.9 mm wide (about 2 to 2.3 times as long as wide), 0.4 to 0.5 mm thick, flattened on one side, convex on the other. (The bladder-like sacs that enclose the female flower and later the fruit are called perigynia, singular - perigynium). The perigynium itself is 3 to 7 veined on the front side but often inconspicuous, 5 to 7 veined on the back side, flattened on the margin with a thin wing 0.1 to 0.5 mm wide that has rough margins or cilia in the upper part. The upper body gradually tapers to a 2-toothed beak that can be spreading, ascending or appressed. The beak tip is straw color to reddish brown. The back side of the beak has a suture, typical of the Ovales Section. The scales of the female spikes are white membranous to pale brown, with a green to brown mid stripe that does not reach the top of the scale, shorter and narrower than the perigynia and also tapering to a pointed tip on scales of the upper perigynia and with an obtuse tip on lower perigynia. Pistillate scales are 2.3 to 3.3 mm long on the lower perigynia. There are two stigmas per flower, 3 stamens.
Seed: Mature fruit is a brown ovate shaped achene 1.3 to 1.7 mm long and 0.85 to 1.1 mm wide, 0.5 mm thick. Florets are pollinated by the wind.
Varieties: There are two - var. tenera has perigynium beaks appressed or ascending, exceeding the pistillate scales by up to 0.8 mm, and leaf sheaths the show a least some spare hair under 30x magnification; var. echinodes has a perigynium beak spreading, not appressed or ascending, exceeding the pistillate scales by 0.7 to 1.6 mm, and smooth leaf sheaths. Both varieties are found in Minnesota.
Habitat: Quill Sedge grows from a short rhizomatous root system forming dense tussocks, not colonies, around ponds and lakes, swales, ditches and wet woods. The species handles wet to mesic moisture conditions, grows in full sun in wet conditions but grows also in partial sun to shade in wet-mesic to mesic areas.
Names: The genus name, Carex, is from the Latin, being the old name for Sedges. The species, tenera, means 'tender'. The author name for the plant classification - ‘Dewey’ refers to Chester Dewey (1784-1867), American botanist and educator, professor at Williams College and later The University of Rochester. His work in botany is known chiefly for his studies of carices - the Sedges - resulting in a 43 year series of papers titled Caricography.
Comparisons: Quill Sedge is classified in the sedge section Ovales wherein the species form dense clumps from short-rhizomatous root systems, have gynecandrous terminal spikes and gynecandrous or pistillate lateral spikes on racemose inflorescences; have lower bracts scale or bristle-like. Perigynia are erect to spreading, usually smooth surfaces, flattened with a marginal wing, tapering to or rounded to a beak with two short teeth and an abaxial suture. Achenes are smaller than the perigynia bodies, biconvex, with a small pointed tip from the residual style. Quill Sedge is mainly identified by the open (separated) ovate to globose shaped spikes on a thin, wiry and frequently nodding raceme, perigynia bodies with the wing and very short non-flowering stems with only a few blades at the tip.
C. scoparia, Broom Sedge, has narrow leaves also, 1.4 to 3 mm wide buy the inflorescence is more compact and clustered at the tip of the raceme. C. bebbii, Bebb's Sedge, has reddish-brown perigynia also but the spikes are densely clustered. C. brevior, Shortbeak Sedge, likewise has narrow leaves, but the spikes are more clustered and the perigynia are only 1.2 to 1.8 times as long as wide. The closest look-alike is C. normalis, Greater Straw Sedge, where however the inflorescence is more stiff, the lower internode between spikes is shorter - 6 to 10 mm, the leaves wider - 2.2 to 6.5 mm, the perigynia wider - 1.8 to 2.2 times as long as wide, and leaf sheaths are thicker, looser with the summit conspicuously prolonged.
Above: The inflorescence at floweringtime. Note the longer internode on the lower 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: 1st photo - leaf blades are slighty "V" shape when young. 2nd photo - the inflorescence prior to flowering time.
Below:The spikes maturing, note the needle-like bracts.
Below: 1st photo - the stem bases. 2nd & 3rd photos - front and back of a leaf sheath.
Below: Maturing perigynia and a typical plant.
Quill Sedge is one of over 150 sedges native to Minnesota. The two varieties have some variation in which counties in Minnesota they are found, but most of the places not found are in the SW Quadrant of the state. In the metro area both are found in Anoka, Hennepin and Goodhue, mixed in the other metro counties. In North America it is found across all the lower Canadian Provinces except Labrador and Newfoundland and in the U.S. east of the Mississippi River except Mississippi and Florida and west of the Mississippi in Washington, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Minnesota Iowa and Missouri.
Quill Sedge has been listed on both the 1986 and 2009 Garden 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"