Penn sedge, a welcome splash of green

By Tony Capizzo
One of the first signs of spring at Kankakee Sands can be seen at Conrad Station Savanna.  Beginning in March, a terrific green up happens when Penn sedge (Carex pensylvanica) carpets the ground.  Although easily overlooked, this amazing sedge plays an important role in our savanna communities. It has a graceful beauty that stands out after months of drab winter colors.
Penn sedge is one of the earliest plants to flower in our area. Individuals flower from early April through the middle of May.  Penn sedge looks very similar to a grass, but like all sedges, the stem is triangular rather than round.  The flowers are small, white and organized into a single spike at the tip of a stalk.  Under the right conditions, these flowering stalks can look almost furry when the pollen laden anthers extend beyond white flowers and quiver in the breeze.
Penn sedge prefers medium to dry, sandy and loamy soils and some amount of shade.  In contrast, many of our other sedges prefer wetter and sunnier habitats.  Penn sedge grows 4-10 inches tall, spreads by rhizomes to form colonies and maintains a soft green color for much of the year.  Because of its shade tolerance, attractive appearance, low stature and low upkeep, Penn sedge can make a great native option for landscaping and a no-mow ground cover for shady lawns.
The hiking trail through Conrad Station Savanna winds through several areas where Penn sedge is a ground cover, a beautiful backdrop for the showier wildflowers.  My favorite time to walk through Conrad Station is in late April and early May, when a variety of wildflowers such as wild lupine (Lupinus perennis) and violets begin blooming alongside Penn sedge to create a truly impressive display.
Much of our land management and restoration work at Conrad Station involves thinning the tree canopy and shrub layer to permit sunlight to reach to ground in order to replicate the savannas of the past.  Savannas are the transition zone between prairie and forested habitats, where the tree canopy slowly grades from the completely open prairie to the denser canopy cover of forests. Several plant species have adapted to this lightly-shaded environment. Penn sedge is one such species.
One of the most rewarding aspects of tree thinning and non-native shrub removal is to watch the variety of native savanna plants sprout from seeds that have been dormant for many, many years.  Penn sedge is one of the first plants to respond to available light, often within a year or two of tree thinning.
I encourage you to take a walk through Conrad Station Savanna in April or May to appreciate Penn sedge, a plant that is so small but offers us a glimmer of hope that both spring and our savanna restoration are well on their way.

Tony Capizzo, Land Steward at The Nature Conservancy’s Efroymson Restoration at Kankakee Sands, is a Michigan native who has worked on sand prairies and savannas in Indiana, Michigan, and South Dakota. 

The Nature Conservancy’s Conrad Station Savanna is 380 acres of savanna and prairie habitat in Newton County, Indiana.  Conrad is part of the larger Kankakee Sands Project which encompasses over 30,000 acres of protected land in Illinois and Indiana owned and managed by The Nature Conservancy and other conservation organizations and agencies.  The Nature Conservancy properties are open every day of the year for public enjoyment.  For more information visit or call the Kankakee Sands Office at 219-285-2184.

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