Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania Sedge)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Cyperaceae (Sedge)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, sun; dry to average moisture; woods, woodland edges, savannas
Fruiting season:May - June
Plant height:4 to 18 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:none
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

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Detailed Information

Spikes: Cluster type: spike

[photo of flowering spikes] Separate staminate (male) and pistillate (female) spikes, with a single staminate spike ½ to 1 inch long at the tip of the stem. Below the staminate spike are 1 to 3 pistillate spikes, which may be close together or spread apart. Spikes are stalkless or nearly so and dark purplish brown at flowering time, staminate spikes with showy, creamy yellow stamens, pistillate spikes with long, white, thread-like styles. At the base of a pistillate spike is a scale-like bract that is shorter than the spike; the lowest spike is subtended by a leaf-like bract that is rather longer than the spike but usually shorter than the inflorescence (group of spikes).

Leaves and stem: Leaf attachment: alternate Leaf attachment: basal Leaf type: simple

[photo of sheath and ligule] Leaves are basal and alternate, mostly near the base, 1 to 3 mm wide, erect to ascending and only a few inches long at flowering time but elongating up to 2 feet at maturity and becoming arching. Stem leaf sheaths are U to V-shaped and translucent whitish-green with vertical veins. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is wider than long. Leaves are V-shaped in cross-section and hairless though may be slightly rough.

[photo of red basal sheaths] Bases are wrapped in a red sheath that splits and has thread-like fibers along the edges (a characteristic known as “fibrillose”), the fibers typically connected and may form a ladder pattern. Remnants of leaves from the previous year can persist and may be fibrous. Stems are slender, 3-sided and mostly smooth. Often only 4 to 6 inches tall at flowering time, the stems can elongate up to 18 inches at maturity. Not all plants produce flowering stems. Plants form loose clumps and create colonies from spreading rhizomes.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of mature spikes] Fruit develops in mid to late spring, the pistillate spikes forming clusters of seeds (achenes), each wrapped in a casing (perigynium), subtended by a scale. The scales of staminate spikes are oval-elliptic, purplish brown with white edging and a blunt or pointed tip. The empty staminate scales persist after fruit has dropped off. Pistillate spikes each contain 4 to 12 fruits.

[photo of scale, perigynia and achene] Pistillate scales are 2 to 4 mm long, 1.3 to 2.8 mm wide, egg-shaped with a blunt or pointed tip, dark purplish brown with a band of white around the edge, and are as long as or slightly longer than the perigynia. Perigynia are 2.3 to 3.4 mm long, 1.1 to 1.5 mm wide, fuzzy hairy at least in the upper half, lack veins, are generally urn-shaped, the body spherical, tapering towards the base, and a short straight beak that has 2 small teeth at the tip, though they may be obscure when immature. Achenes are 1.3 to 2.3 mm long, .9 to 1.4 mm wide, somewhat oval but widest above the middle, weakly 3-sided to round in cross-section, and mature to dark brown.


Carex pensylvanica is one of the most common sedges in Minnesota, found throughout the state, and is one of the earliest blooming woodland plants in the spring—the creamy staminate spikes are rather showy and stand out amid the usually brown woodland floor. It grows in loose colonies with its small clumps a few inches to about a foot apart, and spreads primarily by rhizomes. Noted as a highly disturbance-tolerant species, an abundance of C. pensylvanica may be an indication of lack of diversity and degraded habitat.

Carex is a large genus, with over 600 species in North America and 150+ in Minnesota alone. They are grouped into sections, the species in each group having common traits. Carex pensylvanica is in the Acrocystis section (formerly Montanae); some of its common traits are: mostly dry habitat, hairless leaves, basal sheaths typically fibrous, small spikes often tightly clustered, terminal spike staminate, perigynia typically hairy, perigynia with 2 small teeth at the tip of the beak, achenes 3-sided to round in cross-section.

C. pensylvanica is distinguished from other members of Acrocystis by the combination of: its single, relatively large staminate spike, pistillate scales as long as or longer than the perigynia, hairy perigynia, perigynia beak less than half as long as the body, basal sheaths that are red and fibrous, leaves up to 3mm wide, loosely tufted with spreading rhizomes.

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More photos

Photos by K. Chayka taken in Ramsey County. Other photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk.


Have you seen this plant in Minnesota, or have any other comments about it?

Posted by: Connie - Becker County
on: 2010-05-04 08:42:08

Thanks for the ID on this Sedge, I could not find in in any of my wildflower references that I have. It is such a little bloomer that I am sure it goes unnoticed.

Posted by: Shelley - Cottonwood County
on: 2011-03-18 01:17:51

This can be found at this site on the soil next to the outcropping of Sioux Quartzite at Jeffers Petroglyphs State Historic Site. Thanks for helping me ID it.

Posted by: Al - Vadnais Heights
on: 2011-05-13 14:57:22

Found in Willow Lake area.It took a while to ID since it was blooming and not in seed yet.

Posted by: Pat - Pillager
on: 2011-12-05 11:38:57

My entire yard is this species, not grass. Really neat as it looks just like grass but only grows 8" tall. I never have to mow my 1 and 1/2 acres.

Posted by: Tom - Three Rivers Park, St. Anthony, MN
on: 2013-02-27 16:47:08

Saw sign posted behind main building that a large area is being restored with native Pennsylvania Sedge grass. Three Rivers Parks are always doing great things with their parks!

Posted by: Vickie - Crosslake area, Big Pine lake
on: 2013-05-20 20:23:03

Have been trying to id this for 3 years!! thanks for the help. Not in wildflower books. Have found it growing along path to the lake this last week.

Posted by: Joelle - Shakopee
on: 2015-04-18 12:30:32

Saw a bunch of this at the Louisville Swamp Unit of the NWR in Shakopee and it got me curious, as the guides I use don't include grasses/sedges. Thanks!

Posted by: cheryl - elm creek park reserve expert loop of the mt bike trail
on: 2016-04-21 15:44:45

This is blooming right now all over on the expert loop of the mountain bike trail at Elm Creek Park Reserve.

Posted by: Tracy - Plymouth
on: 2016-10-02 10:14:16

Is Carex pensylvanica available for purchase at any of the metro garden centers?

Posted by: Tracy H - Plymouth
on: 2016-10-09 10:45:24

My family and I saw clusters of Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania Sedge) last weekend in the woods at Crow-Hassan Park Reserve near Hanover, MN. I would love to utilize this in our extremely shady back yard where shady grass even has a hard time establishing itself. Is Carex pensylvanica (Pennsylvania Sedge) readily available at local garden centers?

Posted by: K. Chayka
on: 2016-10-09 14:10:39

Tracy, we do not track who sells what but you're more likely to find it at a native plant nursery. See "where to buy native seeds and plants", which is on almost every page.

Posted by: luciearl - Fairview Twp./Lake Shore
on: 2021-05-05 12:07:10

I always thought sedges were so difficult to identify, but now, knowing this feeds so many birds, I was pleased to find it almost everywhere. Edge of my yard, in the ditches, in the woods. It's easy to identify now, like a mascara brush blooming yellow. Most people would say it's just grass, but look at the scattered small clumps that are a prettier, brighter green. I wish my whole lawn was this.

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