Carex arctata (Drooping Wood Sedge)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Cyperaceae (Sedge)
Life cycle:perennial
Habitat:part shade, shade; deciduous and mixed forest, swamps, alder thickets
Fruiting season:June - July
Plant height:8 to 40 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: none MW: none NCNE: 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 terminal spikes] Separate staminate (male) and pistillate (female) spikes, with a single staminate spike up to 1½ inches long at the tip of the stem. Below the staminate spikes are 2 to 5 slender-stalked pistillate spikes, widely spaced and arising singly from the nodes with a leaf-like bract at the base of the stalk. The stalk of the lowest spike is longest with the stalks becoming progressively shorter as they ascend the stem, the stalks initially erect to ascending, becoming drooping with maturity. Pistillate spikes are slender and cylindrical, up to about 3 inches long, green at flowering time with white, thread-like styles, and the staminate spike with creamy yellow stamens.

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

[photo of sheath and ligule] Leaves are basal and alternate, mostly near the base, 3 to 10 mm wide, shorter than the flowering stems, becoming arching. Stem leaf sheaths loosely wrap the stem and are papery, translucent whitish. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is longer than wide and obscure. Leaves are M-shaped in cross-section when young, and hairless though slightly rough along the edges.

[photo of basal sheaths] Bases are wrapped in a light tan to green sheath that is not fibrous and is typically tinged red to purple. Stems are slender, 3-sided and mostly smooth except rough in the upper plant. Stems become leaning to arching, elongating up to 3 feet or more at maturity and are much longer than the leaves. Not all plants produce flowering stems. Plants form loose to dense clumps.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[photo of mature pistillate spike] Fruit develops in late spring through mid-summer, the pistillate spikes forming clusters of seeds (achenes), each wrapped in a casing (perigynium), subtended by a scale. The empty staminate scales persist after fruit has dropped off. Pistillate spikes each contain 15 to 45 fruits that are not tightly crowded on the stalk.

[photo of perigynia, scale and achene] Pistillate scales are oval to lance-oblong, translucent white with a green midrib, either tapering to a pointed tip or the midrib extending to an awn up to 1.5 mm long, may be hairy or rough around the edges, and are shorter than the perigynia. Perigynia are 3 to 5 mm long, 1 to 2 mm wide, 2-ribbed with 10 to 15 faint veins, hairless, loosely wrapping the achene, oval-elliptic with a long taper to the beak and 2 minute teeth at the tip, abruptly tapering at the base to a stipe (stalk-like structure) up to 3 mm long. Achenes are 1.7 to 2.6 mm long, up to 1.7 mm wide, 3-sided in cross-section, and mature to golden brown.


Carex arctata is found throughout much of northern half of Minnesota, primarily in rich, forested areas, occasionally swamps.

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 arctata is in the Hymenochlaenae section; some of its common traits are: typically clump forming and forming loose colonies, leaves M-shaped in cross-section when young, spikes long and cylindric and drooping on slender stalks, terminal spike either all staminate or with a few perigynia (usually at the tip, occasionally the base), perigynia round in cross-section, 2-veined, beaked, the beak usually toothed, 3-sided achenes, often growing in woodlands.

Carex arctata is very similar in appearance to two other hairless Minnesota sedges: Carex gracillima and Carex debilis, both of which have a terminal spike with a few perigynia at the tip (gynecandrous) where the terminal spike of C. arctata is all staminate. The shape of the perigynia also distinguishes them: C. gracillima beakless or nearly so, C. debilis rather longer (5+ mm) and proportionately more slender, and C. arctata intermediate between the two, having a shorter beak than C. debilis and abruptly tapering to the stipe at the base where the other two species are stalkless. C. arctata has been reported to hybridize with other members of its section, though these are not documented in Minnesota.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Cook and Lake counties.


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

Posted by: Linda - Aitkin MN on Lone Lake
on: 2016-06-06 18:47:59

Growing in my yard about 100 feet from the lake shore.

Posted by: Brett W - Sherburne County
on: 2019-12-28 20:22:21

Lots of these along the trail through the white pines of the Sand Dunes State forest into Uncas Dunes (SE Unit). Very robust, growing in the sandy soils, pine duff.

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