Carex pallescens (Pale Sedge)

Plant Info
Also known as:
Family:Cyperaceae (Sedge)
Life cycle:perennial
  • State Endangered
Habitat:part shade, sun; average to moist rocky soil; forest edges, meadows, slopes
Fruiting season:June - August
Plant height:8 to 30 inches
Wetland Indicator Status:GP: none MW: FACW NCNE: FAC
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: Flower shape: indistinct Cluster type: spike

[photo of spikes] Separate staminate (male) and pistillate (female) spikes, with a single staminate spike up to about 1 inch long at the top of the stem, rarely with a few pistillate flowers at the tip (gynecandrous). Below the staminate spike are 2 to 4 oval to cylindric, all-pistillate spikes each up to about ¾ inch long, occasionally with a few staminate flowers at the base (androgynous). The uppermost 1 or 2 lateral spikes usually crowd the staminate spike with the lower spikes more widely separated. Lower pistillate spikes are longer stalked than upper spikes and may be nodding, the upper stalks mostly erect to ascending. Pistillate spikes each have a leaf-like bract at the base of the stalk that is sheathless, the lowest bract usually over-tops the terminal spike.

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

[photo of sheath, ligule and leaf hairs] Leaves are basal and alternate, 2 to 3 mm wide, erect to ascending, shorter than the flowering stem. Stem leaf sheaths are U to V-shaped at the tip and moderately to densely hairy. The ligule (membrane where the leaf joins the sheath) is longer than wide, an inverted V-shape. Leaves are hairless on the upper surface, sparsely to moderately hairy on the underside especially near the base, V-shaped in cross-section when young.

[photo of basal sheaths] Bases are wrapped in a reddish-brown sheath that becomes fibrous with age. Stems are slender, 3-sided, sparsely hairy, mostly erect and may elongate up to 30 inches at maturity. Not all plants produce flowering stems. Plants form loose to dense clumps from short rhizomes.

Fruit: Fruit type: seed without plume

[close up of maturing spike] Fruit develops in late spring through early summer, the pistillate spikes forming clusters of seeds (achenes), each wrapped in a casing (perigynium), subtended by a scale. Pistillate spikes have 20 to 50 fruits, the perigynia ascending to spreading, overlapping and somewhat crowded.

[photo of perigynia, scale and achene] Pistillate scales are egg-shaped, reddish-brown to whitish with a green midrib that usually extends to a short awn, the scale more or less as long as the perigynia, including the awn. Perigynia are greenish-brown to spotted chestnut brown at maturity, 2.3 to 3 mm long, 1 to 1.5 mm wide, hairless, slightly inflated, faintly 14 to 20-veined, oblong-elliptic, round to weakly 3-sided in cross-section, lacking a beak at the tip. Achenes are 1.8 to 2 mm long, weakly 3-sided in cross-section, urn-shaped, widest above the middle, tapering at the base and maturing to brown.


Carex pallescens is a rare sedge in Minnesota, where it reaches the western edge of its North American range, though there may be disjunct populations in the northwest US and Canada. It is a circumpolar species with the North American species sometimes designated var. neogaea. According to the DNR, only a few known populations exist in the state, most near the north shore of Lake Superior, and its greatest threat is loss of habitat from development, including road construction, and recreational activities. Carex pallescens was listed as a MN Endangered species in 1996 and is currently Special Concern 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 pallescens is in the Porocystis section; some of its common traits are: clump forming, short rhizomatous, basal sheaths reddish-brown and fibrous, leaves V-shaped in cross-section when young and usually hairy, widest leaves 8 mm or less, 2 to 6 spikes, bracts sheathless and thread-like or leaf-like, terminal spike all staminate or with pistillate flowers at the tip (gynecandrous), lateral spikes all pistillate or with a few staminate flowers at the base (androgynous), perigynia ascending to spreading and veined on one or both sides, perigynia usually beakless or with a toothless beak not more than .5mm long, achenes 3-sided with 3 stigmas.

Carex pallescens is distinguished from other Carex species by the combination of: clump forming, sheaths hairy, lower leaf surface hairy at least near the base, all-staminate terminal spike, 2 to 5 lateral all-pistillate spikes on erect stalks, perigynia 1 to 1.5mm wide, elliptic and beakless with 14 to 20 faint veins. Carex pallescens most closely resembles Carex torreyi, which has perigynia 1.5 to 2.2 mm wide that are more strongly veined and have a short but distinct, toothless beak.

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More photos

Photos courtesy Peter M. Dziuk taken in Lake County.


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

Posted by: Gary - Carlton County
on: 2017-10-21 19:06:16

I saw this sedge about 12 years ago near Esko, MN in damp areas of an abandoned pasture. I also found this one time near Barnum, MN also in a damp area at the edge of a hay field. I've gone back to this spot several times over the years but it seems to have disappeared from there. Another location was in a damp field near Hibbing, MN in 2004.

Posted by: Jason Husveth - Marine on St. Croix
on: 2021-04-23 15:46:44

I discovered a large population of vigorous plants of Carex pallescens in SE Kanabec County in 2020. The specimens are being processed. This was quite a different habitat from all other documented populations along the north shore and perhaps similar to other habitats (native dominated pasture/old field) more recently documented inland from the north shore but in much more northern counties. This is quite a southern range extension for one of Minnesota's rarest Carex species, and suggests that there are likely additional populations in locations between SE Kanabec and the North Shore of Lake Superior.

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