Botanical name: Carex cherokeensis
Common name: Cherokee sedge
Family name: Cyperaceae (Sedge family)
Native range: Southeastern United States
Location in Duke Gardens: Blomquist Garden of Native Plants & Doris Duke Center Gardens
USDA Hardiness Zones: 6-9
By Katherine Hale
Marketing & Communications Assistant
At first glance, a cluster of Cherokee sedge (Carex cherokeensis) appears to be a bunch of wiry, nondescript tufts of green—hardly the sort of plant worth getting worked up about. So, what about this assuming species has horticulturists, landscape architects and botanists so excited?
From a horticulturist’s perspective, Cherokee sedge is tough, durable and adaptable to a wide range of soil and shade regimes, and thus it's easy to incorporate in almost any garden setting. It can be planted en masse, used to line paths and walkways, or as native substitute for groundcovers like liriope or dwarf lilyturf. Cherokee sedge thrives on hillsides and in rain gardens, meadows and other areas with little foot traffic—and while the plants might benefit from being cut back on occasion, they never need to be mowed like turfgrass.
Similarly, landscape architects love this and other species of sedges for their textured foliage, which contrasts with showier flowers and serves as a year-round backdrop to a changing seasonal palette. As a result, Cherokee sedge and its relatives are a key element in modern formal gardens, as well as those in a more naturalistic style, including the famous High Line park in New York City.
Meanwhile, botanists appreciate Cherokee sedge as one of more than 2,000 species in the genus Carex—known as “true sedges” to distinguish them from other members of the Cyperaceae, or sedge family. To call these plants a taxonomic challenge is a vast understatement—many species are impossible to identify unless flowers or seeds are present, and they often require a deep dive into specialized flora and dichotomous keys in order to be absolutely certain. There’s also no avoiding them—with so many species and a near-global distribution, there are Carex on every continent except Antarctica, and they are especially ubiquitous in wetlands and alpine tundra.
Fortunately, while individual Carex species can be complicated to distinguish from each other, sedges as a group are very easy to identify. As a rule of thumb, any grass-like perennial with triangular stems, especially in damp soils, is most likely a sedge. Or, to quote a poem familiar to naturalists around the world, "Sedges have edges, rushes are round, and grasses have nodes from their tips to the ground.” Carex leaves in particular can be razor-sharp if rubbed at the wrong angle—their name comes from the Latin word for “cutter” for a reason!
In the wild, Cherokee sedge is found primarily in high-nutrient soils with abundant calcium across the Southeastern United States, but its versatility and utility have made it one of the most ubiquitous sedges in the nursery trade and it can grow happily outside its natural range. Look for it along the paths and upper slopes of the ravine in the Spring Woodland Garden, where it mingles with a variegated Japanese sedge (C. morrowii ‘Ice Dance’) closer to the water’s edge. You’ll also find this species and many other kinds of Carex in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants, where they serve as shelter and food for songbirds and insect pollinators.
Note: Our spring “Spotlight on Native Sedges” class—an in-person workshop exploring the possibilities of Carex species in the garden with Shannon Currey of Izel Native Plants—filled to capacity fast, but keep an eye on our program schedule if you're interested in future classes, and check out the rest of this season’s educational offerings on our registration website.
Photos from top: Cherokee sedge on a sloped hillside in the Spring Woodland Garden; close-up of Cherokee sedge; Cherokee sedge bordering a stone staircase in the Spring Woodland Garden. All photos by Cathi Bodine.