Carex formosa (Handsome Sedge)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Cyperaceae (Sedge)
Life cycle:perennial
  • State Endangered
Habitat:part shade, shade; average moisture; rich deciduous forest, ravines, floodplains
Fruiting season:June - July
Plant height:12 to 30 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: FAC MW: FAC NCNE: FAC
MN county distribution (click map to enlarge):Minnesota county distribution map
National distribution (click map to enlarge):National distribution map

Pick an image for a larger view. See the glossary for icon descriptions.

Detailed Information

Spikes: Cluster type: spike

[photo of spikes] A single staminate spike up to 2 inches long at the top of the stem, which almost always has a few to several pistillate flowers at the very tip (gynecandrous). Below this terminal spike are 2 to 4 slender-stalked, pistillate spikes that almost always have 1 or 2 staminate flowers at the base. These lateral spikes are 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 1 inch long, erect and 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 7 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 about as long as wide. Leaves are M-shaped in cross-section when young, mostly hairless on the upper surface, the underside and edges variously covered in long, white hairs which continue down the back of the sheath.

[photo of basal sheaths, late season] Bases are wrapped in a sheath that is hairy, not fibrous, and typically tinged red to purple, turning brown as they wither with age. Stems are slender, 3-sided and mostly smooth but rough along the angles in the upper plant. Stems become leaning to arching, elongating up to 30 inches at maturity and are 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 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 10 to 45 fruits that are often tightly arranged on the stalk.

[photo of perigynia, scale and achene] Pistillate scales are egg-shaped, translucent white tinged brown with a green midrib that turns brown, pointed at the tip or the midrib extending to an awn less than 1 mm long, and are shorter than the perigynia. Perigynia are green tinged or dotted red, 3.5 to 5 mm long, 1.7 to 2 mm wide, 2-ribbed with 7 to 12 faint veins, hairless, loosely wrapping the achene, oval-elliptic, tapering at the tip with 2 minute teeth at the tip of the short beak, and tapering to the stalkless base. Achenes are 2 to 2.5 mm long, up to 1.5 mm wide, 3-sided in cross-section, and mature to dark brown.


Carex formosa is found in wooded ravines and river valleys in only a handful of locations in Minnesota. According to the DNR, it is uncommon to rare throughout its range and its fragile habitat is a prime target for development, timber harvest, and livestock grazing. It was listed as a state Endangered species in 1996 and is currently listed as Threatened in Wisconsin.

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 formosa 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 formosa is distinguished from other sedges in Minnesota by the combination of: hairy leaves, reddish basal sheaths, terminal spike mostly staminate with several perigynia at the tip, lateral spikes pistillate with 1 or 2 staminate flowers or empty scales at the base. It is most similar in appearance to another hairy Minnesota sedge: the also-rare Carex davisii, which has pistillate scales that are long-awned and often longer than the perigynia, and its lateral spikes are almost always all pistillate with no staminate flowers at the base. Overall, C. formosa also resembles other members of the Hymenochlaenae section (C. arctata in particular), but they are hairless and have all-pistillate spikes longer than 1 inch.

Native Plant Nurseries, Restoration and Landscaping Services ↓

Map of native plant resources in the upper midwest

  • Out Back Nursery
  • Shop for native seeds and plants at!
  • Shooting Star Native Seeds - Native Prairie Grass and Wildflower Seeds
  • Morning Sky Greenery - Native Prairie Plants
  • Natural Shore Technologies - Using science to improve land and water

More photos

Photos courtesy John Thayer taken in Polk County.


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

Post a comment

Note: All comments are moderated before posting to keep the riff-raff out. An email address is required, but will not be posted—it will only be used for information exchange between the 2 of us (if needed) and will never be given to a 3rd party without your express permission.

For info on subjects other than plant identification (gardening, invasive species control, edible plants, etc.), please check the links and invasive species pages for additional resources.


Note: Comments or information about plants outside of Minnesota and neighboring states may not be posted because Id like to keep the focus of this web site centered on Minnesota. Thanks for your understanding.