This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Pistillate spikelets 2 to 4, cylindric, slender, the upper ones sessile, often staminate at the summit; perigynia ovate, acute, about as long as the lanceolate scale ; culms, one to two feet high, rather slender, deeply striate, very acute and scabrous on the angles, leafy at the base, remarkably caespitose; leaves linear, keeled, often longer than the culm, radical ones very numerous; sheaths striate, sometimes filamentous; staminate spikelets, two or three, often solitary, half an inch to near two inches in length; pistillate spikelets three quarters to one and a half inches long, the lowest on a very short pedicel; scales reddish brown, with a green keel, variable in length and acuteness. (Darlington's Flora Cestrica. See also Gray's Manual, Wood's Class Book, and Chapman's Flora of the Southern States.)
RASSES have mostly hollow and round stems: the Sedges, which resemble grasses, have usually triangular solid ones, and while the former have generally hermaphrodite flowers (flowers with stamens and pistils in the same individual), the Sedges have the genders either in separate spikes, or in separate flowers on the same spike. The origin of the name Carex seems uncertain. It is supposed to be derived from the Greek, and to signify "sharp," from the fact that many of the species have such sharp edges to the leaves and culms as to cut the careless handler. But although of Greek derivation, the name is first found in Virgil as applying to this family of plants, and it was adopted by modern botanists just as it stood.
The Sedge Grasses constitute a family numbering hundreds of species, and some of them are found all over the world. Few of them have any beauty to the casual observer, but many of them "will bear examination" remarkably well. The present species always attracts by the earliness of its flowers and by the large and peculiar tussocks it forms in low, swampy grounds. These tussocks are generally a foot high and fully as wide, and very often are all the vegetation that exists to any great extent in swampy places. They are very much assisted in their formation by frost. As the mud and water expand by freezing, the sedge-tufts are lifted by the expansion, and the finer particles of mud settle under them in the early thaw. The tussocks, therefore, do not grow up from the mud as by a stem, but are lifted gradually, and the plant-collector often experiences the truth of this observation to his cost, by finding that they tilt over under his foot, as he steps from one to the other.
A very interesting fact may be noticed in the tussocks in early spring. On the south side the flowers are perfected often a full week before those on the north side. So little warmth is required to bring them forth that the very small difference in the temperature between the north and the south side of the same plant is enough to make this difference in time.
Another interesting observation can be made on the development of the staminate spikes. The stamens burst from their enclosing scales very early in the morning, and by about nine o'clock have opened their anther cells and committed their abundant yellow pollen to the winds. Nothing but dry membrane remains to represent the anthers for the rest of the day. This process commences from the upper part of the spike downwards, and only a few series mature every day. The next, a fresh series, lower down, take their part in this action, and after several days the whole spike has bloomed.
The precise meaning of the division of sexes - the arrangement of female flowers in one head and male flowers in another - is not yet clear to botanists. In these Sedges the pollen-bearing or staminate flowers are usually mature at a time when the pistils of the female flowers on the same spike are not in a receptive condition, and the fertilization of the flower therefore is more likely to be from the pollen of another flower on the same plant, but on another spike, or even from a flower on a different plant. The meaning was supposed to be that it was an arrangement to avoid close breeding; but Mr. Darwin has shown that for any benefit to result from cross-fertilization the two parent plants must be growing under different conditions, which is not the case with the numerous plants of this one Sedge growing in the same swamp together. The true meaning of separate sexes in flowers, therefore, still awaits discovery by some observing student.
The relative positions of the male and female flowers in the Sedges will also interest the observer. In some cases the spike of male flowers terminates the scape; in others the male flowers occupy the lower place; in others, again, they have various places on the same spike. It will be generally noted that this is associated together with lines of nutrition, - those evidently favored by comparative abundance sustaining the female flowers. And this is indeed a natural consequence, for, as vitality exists so much longer in the female than the male flowers, which generally die when the pollen has matured, it is essential that they should have every advantage in this respect. Our present species has the male spike terminal; but as seen in the more mature portion (Fig. 2), the apex of the female spike is sometimes infertile.
In the spring of the year the swamps along the lines of railroad tracks are often burned over, and it is interesting to note that these tussocks, although exposed on all sides to fire, and left as if they were mere lumps of ashes, push out their green blades as if no fire had been about them. It is an excellent illustration of the determination to succeed under severe trials, which is generally successful in those who struggle with the ills of life. In fact, such people are often better for having struggled, and here we have a still further illustration, for the burned-over plants have the full benefit of the salts contained in the consumed vegetation, and push into growth of a healthy, bluish-green, while those that have not been "tried as by fire," and can only make a nutritious use of last year s foliage by gradual and slow decay, grow with a yellowish tint.
The name stricta is given from the stiff, upright leaves of early spring, but these droop over gracefully before fall. For the same reason the plant is in some places called "Upright-leaved Sedge," although its best known common name is "Tussock-Sedge/'
As a rule the Sedge Grasses are of little value to the human race; cattle exhibit no great relish for them; but this species, when dried, yields very fair hay for cows, though it is not regarded as so nutritious as the true grasses. Its chief use in nature is in aiding swampy ground to gather the soil that drifts from the high land, and make land that will in time sustain a more nutritious growth.
Shakespeare makes Hotspur, in "Henry IV," refer to the marsh-loving character of the Sedge Grass when he speaks of •"The gentle Severn's sedgy bank."
The "Tussock-Sedge" is a native of most of the States cast of the Mississippi, except the extreme South, and is also native to Europe.
1. A portion of a tussock in flower in May.
2. A scape a month Later, with achenes or seeds partially formed.