Identifying sedges can be a challenge so it is something of a relief to come upon one that can really not be mistaken for anything else. That is the case with the greater tussock sedge (Carex paniculata) which cannot really be mistaken for anything else when you bear in mind that the lesser tussock sedge is a very rare plant in southern England. If you see a tussock sedge in Dorset then it is almost (although not definitely) the greater of the two.
If you see a tussock sedge; that begs the question "what is a tussock sedge?". A tussock sedge is a perennial species that dies back each winter and re-shoots and flowers each summer. Over time the dead matter accumulates and the new shoots grow from the top and eventually the dead matter forms a tussock, hence the name.
Whilst not a common species where it does occur it can be quite prolific. You can find it in fens, bogs, swamps, by lakes and even in damp woodland. It does, in fact, prefer shady conditions.
Carex caryophyllea: the spring sedge
One tends to think of sedges as liking a damp habitat, wet meadows or the edges of ponds and the like but this is not always the case. There are exceptions to this rule and spring sedge (Carex caryophyllea) is certainly one of them as it is primarily a species of dry grassland where the turf is short, often on calcareous soils. In Dorset it is also common on the acid soil of the heaths.
Low growing, it has a rather compact yet elongated, almost pear-shaped, flower head with the tip being white (or sometimes pale yellow). In some ways this sedge is similar to a plantain flower but the leaves are very different being thin and wiry. It is, in my view, one of the easier sedges to name.
Called spring sedge because it is in 'flower' in May and June.
Carex binervis: the green-ribbed sedge
This is a species where the name gives you the key to identification which is not always the case in nature. The green-ribbed sedge (Carex binervis) has dark green leaves whereas many sedges are pale green or glaucous grey and it has ribbed leaves where many sedges are smooth.
Sedges are interesting as they tend to have a single male 'flower' at the top of the stem and then female flowers below coming alternately from the stem.The shape, arrangement and combination of these two sorts of flower also help to identify it although, even so, sedges can be tricky chaps in my view! In green-ribbed sedge the male flower is tall and slender, the female ones more compact and yet quite large. Both sexes are a purple-brown and they look 'over' even when newly produced.
Green-ribbed sedge can be found on acid soils and, unusually for sedges, they prefer dry ground and so can be found on dry heath and acid grassland where other sedges are less likely to be found.
Carex nigra: the black sedge
There is some thing sinister about the name black sedge (Carex nigra)! The black sedge conjures up thoughts of a plant spreading out across the world devastating everything in its path in an uncontrollable and relentlessness expansion. A bit like the 'Day of the Triffids' I suppose! This is, of course just me and my mind ... or is it?
Also known as common sedge this is, indeed, probably one of our most common and familiar sedge species. It has blueish, vertical sword-like leaves and flower-heads, called catkins on sedges that are distinctively black when they emerge and the resulting seed heads are black too.
Black sedge spreads rampantly and where it occurs it will be in some abundance. It needs quite damp soil to survive and so its extent is limited by the ground conditions but it will often take over and fill the entire area of slack fresh water and boggy conditions around ponds, lakes and marshes.
Carex flacca: the glaucous sedge
It may seem a little paradoxical but glaucous sedge (Carex flacca) is one of our most insignificant sedges and yet one of the most conspicuous and easily identified! The leaves grow to no more than a few inches high and the spikelet (flower) is often less than six inches tall so why is it easy to spot and easy to identify?
Firstly, where it grows it is often very common with the turf layer holding lots of plants in close proximity. Add to this the distinctive grey (glaucous) leaves and the effect is quite noticeable, the turf turns greyish green. Just to add to the effect the spikelets are deep purple verging on black and stand out against the colour of the turf.
Glaucous sedge is wide spread across Dorset and can be found on damp soils on grasslands, meadows, dunes, fens and even the heaths although it is perhaps more common on calcareous soils than it is on acid ones.
Carex riparia: the greater pond sedge
Pond sedges are quite easy to recognise as they tend to be quite big plants that grow in lakes, ponds and swamps but distinguishing between greater and lesser pond sedge is a bit more difficult. They both favour the same habitats and are both common. Funnily enough, it seems lesser pond sedge is some 20cm taller than greater pond sedge so size is not a good guide either!
The greater pond sedge (Carex riparia) has more flowering spikes than the lesser and the leaves are usually much broader. The greater pond sedge flowers earlier in the year too so there are some things to go on but they are not easy if, like me, you are not an accomplished botanist!
Carex sylvatica: the wood sedge
By far the most common sedge one will find when walking in woodland is the wood sedge (Carex sylvatica). It occurs in damp places in woodlands which are frequently alongside paths and where it occurs it can be quite abundant.
This is a relatively easy plant to identify as, being a sedge, it does not have a flower although it does have a fluorescence; pale yellow catkin-like 'spikes', similar to some grasses. It has numerous thin-pointed pale green leaves giving the whole plant a kind of 'bushy' appearance and it can grow to two feet tall but in my experience I think one foot is about the norm.
Whilst being predominant a deciduous woodland plant it does occur amongst conifers but usually where deciduous trees were once present or where there are deciduous trees close by. Being a shade loving plant it is also grown in gardens as ground cover in sheltered places.
Carex pseudocyperus: the cyperus sedge
Not all sedges are dull and boring, well actually I do not think any are. Some are attractive, elegant plants and are planted around garden ponds as an additional feature. The cyperus sedge (Carex pseudocyperus) is one of these.
Cyperus sedge can grow to around four feet tall. It has glossy, bright, yellowish green leaves that are thin, pointed and ribbed. From amongst the leaves a 'flower' spike emerges and in July or August upon which four or five large catkin-like flowers develop, each on the end of its own thin stalk. These 'flowers' are the female flowers and are quite large and furry and dangle downwards. The top-most flower on the plant is the male flower which is thinner and more pointed. The male flowers being above the female flowers enables self-pollination but, in general, the pollen needed comes in on the breeze from neighbouring plants. The large, dangling female flowers give the plant its other name, the hop sedge.
Cyperus sedge is quite common near fresh water ponds, ditches and even swamps; they do not like acidic conditions though.
Schoenus nigricans: the black bog-rush
The black bog-rush (Schoenus nigricans) is a common sedge but if it is common how come I have not got a very good photograph of it? Quite simply, it grows in very wet places and is difficult to get close to to get a photograph and my picture is actually the view you will often get when you find it.
This plant has a central stem that grows to between two and three feet tall and at its tip a smallish black flower appears in July and August. It has thin, pointed leaves that grow from the base of the plant and these only reach about half way to the flower head. It grows in masses; there is always a lot of it where it occurs. It is not that common overall but abundant where it is established and it establishes itself in wet bogs and salt marshes near the sea. This means that around Poole Harbour, especially on the wet areas of the Purbeck heaths to the south of the harbour, is a favoured habitat for it.
Next summer I really must put my wellies on and go wading to get a better photograph!
Rhynchospora alba: the white-beak sedge
Venture into the wetter areas of the Dorset heaths and one of the most common species of sedge you will find is the white-beak sedge (Rhynchospora alba). Nationally this is quite a scarce plant as its preferred habitat of acid myre is not that widespread at low levels and so this is more common on the mountains and moors up north.
Where it grows it is usually in large colonies and the masses of green shoots each bearing white beak-shaped flowers is a lovely sight. Apart from the much rarer brown beak-sedge you cannot really confuse this species with any others, it is quite unique in appearance.
I cannot recall a wet heath I have visited in Dorset where this does not occur so, if you are an enthusiastic and budding botanist put your wellies on and go hunting!
Trichophorum germanicum: deer grass
If you find yourself in wet heathland in Dorset then you will surely find deer-grass (Trichophorum germanicum) in abundance. It is usually associated with upland moors and bogs and is quite rare in the south of England as a whole but the wet, acid conditions of the Dorset heaths is ideal for it and it thrives.
Also known as deer-sedge, deer-grass is a name applied to at least three species but, in Europe, Trichophorum germanicum has the honour. Even the Latin name has changed in recent year to add to the confusion being originally Trichophorum cesptiosum. It is not a grass, it is a sedge and I have not been able to establish is why it is linked to deer so all in all, it just shows how difficult names can be.
A small plant with small florets and growing in clumps it is one of the easier heathland sedges to identify.