Common Beaked Sedge

Carex utriculata

Species distinguishing characteristics: 

  • Grass-like plants in tufts found in standing water or perennially wet soils
  • Narrow male flower spikes above cylindrical female spikes
  • 3-sided achene in a papery sac with a stout, abruptly pointed beak
  • Flowering stems do not shed or become web-like
  • Leaves are partitioned by cross-walls and are not waxy on the upper surface
  • Hairless leaf sheaths

Family Characteristics: 

  • Grass-like perennials that grow in cool, moist habitats
  • Flowering stems of most sedges are triangular in cross section (rarely round) and do not have the lumpy nodes typical of grasses (hence the mnemonic:  “sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have knees”)
  • Alternate leaves that sheath the lower portion of the stem
  • Small flowers with scales, bristles, or hairs in place of sepals and petals
  • Flowers arranged in spike-like clusters
  • Fruit is a 3-sided achene or nutlet and is often enclosed in a perigynium

Growth habitat: 

Grass-like perennial, 30-120 cm tall, that grows in tufts or large clumps of dense sod. 

Leaves and stems: 

Thick, triangular flowering stems with light brown, spongy bases.  Flowering stems are smooth (may be slightly rough below the flower cluster) and do not shed or become web-like.  Thick yellowish-green to bright green leaves, 5-15 mm wide, are not waxy on the upper surface and are relatively flat with rolled under margins.  Each stem has 4-8 leaves that tightly sheath the lower half of the stem.  Sheaths are hairless.  Upper leaves are often longer than stems and rise above flower clusters, and lower leaves are reduced in size relative to the upper leaves.  Leaves are partitioned between the parallel veins by lighter-colored cross-walls (like rungs on a ladder).  Leaves are persistent and often clothe stems.

Flowers: 

4-9 narrow, cylindrical, spike-like clusters, with male spikes at the top of the stem and female spikes below.  A sheathless, leaf-like bract that is longer than other spikes subtends the lowest spike.  Straw-colored to brown male spikes, 1-6 cm long, are overlapping, short-stalked or stalkless, and narrower than female spikes.  Green to golden-brown female spikes, 4-10 cm long, are separated (not overlapping) and are stalked with spreading to slightly ascending perigynia (membranous, vase-like, papery sacs).  Each perigynium, 3-9 mm long, has 3 white stigmas (tip of a female organ for receiving pollen) emerging from the tip and is in the axil of a yellowish to reddish-brown egg-shaped, pointed scale-like bract.  The scale-like bracts have a lighter center, a translucent margin, and are narrower and shorter than the perigynia.

Roots: 

Short, stout rhizomes and long creeping runners.

Seeds: 

Each perigynia contains a single 3-sided dry seed (achene), 1.5-2.5 mm long, with 3 stigmas on twisted styles that remain attached.  At maturity, the perigynia spread horizontally at near right angles and are papery but firm, smooth, shiny, and somewhat inflated with 7-10 ribs.  The tip of each perigynium is abruptly constricted into a conspicuous beak, 1.5-3 mm long, with 2 teeth.

Habitat preferences: 

Wet soils of meadows, swamps, marshes, fens, streambanks, and pond or lakeshores at low to subalpine elevations.  Prefers perennially wet areas and is often found in standing water.

Interesting facts: 

Common beaked sedge is grazed by moose (Alces alces), elk (Cervus elaphus), deer (Odocoileus spp.), bison (Bison bison), grizzly bears (Ursus arctos), and livestock; especially in the early spring.  Rodents such as muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) and birds such as sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) eat the roots. The dense sod of common beaked sedge provides cover for fish when it grows along streambanks.

The small starchy roots, fleshy stem bases, and small seeds of most members of the sedge family are edible.  People occasionally robbed caches of the roots stored by rodents for use as an emergency winter food source.  A tea of roots can be used as a diaphoretic and a diuretic, but the silica content may irritate the kidneys.  The silica in leaves and roots make them useful as a brush for cleaning pots and other things.

Tribal people, such as the Sámi people and the Blackfoot people, living in cold climates where common beaked sedge grows, often stuffed their boots and mittens with dried sedge leaves to protect from extreme cold during winter expeditions.

Biological Classification: