They dominate much of the temperate climate landscape yet few would recognize what they are. There are over 2000 species world wide but only a very rare person could put a name to more than a couple of these plants. They are so common, in fact, that they are overlooked. In New England alone we have nearly 200 species of this plant. You can find them on the tops of mountains but most are found in bottom lands and wetlands. Most would describe them as grass.
To some they are innocuous. To others they are insipid. To most they are not identifiable. And yet they are one of the most important plant species in northern climates. They provide forage for wildlife, they anchor the soils in wetlands, they clean excess nutrients and pathogens from our surface water supplies with specially developed plant parts. And they are beautiful to those who may take the time to understand what they really are.
Sedges are one of nature’s most durable plants. They take many forms, inhabit a variety of landscapes, and seem to go unnoticed despite their superior ecological value.
As a child I remember jumping from one small plant island to another to cross a swamp. These “islands” were tussock sedge hummocks, a sedge that develops a dense root system and elevates the coarse dense plant colony above an open water column. Much of my time in my early years was spent in large kettle blueberry swamps. These are geomorphic formations left behind by a glaciated landscape. Tens of thousand of years ago huge ice blocks broke off of retreating glaciers. Thick layers of sorted sand and gravel were placed around them from the ice water melt of the northward bound glaciers that dominated every facet of our geography in this era. When the random ice blocks melted large voids in the ground surface were created. In some areas where the hydrology was near the surface, perhaps because of dense layers of lacustrine clay underneath, the holes filled with water creating kettle hole ponds. These ponds eventually began to support plant life. Thousands of years of plant decay filled these ponds with organic material to the point where in the 20th century these former kettle ponds became swamps. These wetlands are now dominated by peat moss, tussock sedge, and high bush blueberry shrubs.
The tussock sedge hummocks that I used for access into these deep swamps were large. When unoccupied by blueberry bushes, which tended to be towards the middle of the swamps, they resembled large, bristly, humps. Some were a square meter in size. Still, one had to be careful jumping from one hummock to the next. Jumping too short a distance or too long a distance could land the adventurer in the mucky peat. Struggling in the muck often resulted in becoming more mired in the wet organic soil. It could be enough to elicit panic. Traveling alone in these swamps was not a good idea, although I did it frequently to escape my childhood problems.
Like any place difficult to access the result of getting to the center of these kettle swamps was more than worth the danger and the great effort. Devoid of human influence they were refuges for amphibians, birds, reptiles, and unusual plant communities. The acid environment supported carnivorous plants like pitcher plants and sundews. There was little human noise because of the dense blueberry brush. And there were no worries about being found.
I was about ten years old when I intercepted an amateur botanist studying the swamps. I was sitting on a tussock underneath a very old blueberry bush only about 100 feet from the edge of the kettle swamp. I could see this odd looking gentleman, dressed like he was right out of a Eddie Bauer catalog, wandering around the edge of the swamp. He was inspecting every plant around the edge of the kettle swamp but was limited to access as he was only wearing knee high boots. As he ambled about I could hear the slurping noise his boots made as he extracted each boot out of the mud as he stepped from one place to the next. At one point he looked up, caught a glimpse of me, and jumped back!
“My, you scared the living bejesus out of me!”
I didn’t say anything but just kept looking and listening.
“You’re probably wondering what I’m doing?”
I nodded my head, still wanting to keep my distance as I had no idea who this fellow was.
“Come here, I’ll show you. I’m looking for sedges!”
I was cautious but curiosity got the best of me and I started hopping from hummock to hummock to reach the shore of the kettle swamp. It occurred to me that he might be a pervert, and believe me that was the last thing I needed in my life, but I was pretty confident that I could easily escape back into the swamp if there were any problems.
As I came close to the edge of the swamp I stopped.
“Do you know what a sedge is?” the stranger asked.
I shook my head.
“Here, I’ll show you!” he stated very enthusiastically.
“It looks like grass, doesn’t it?” he went on exuberantly.
I kept a bit of distance but got one hummock closer.
“You see, it’s different. The perimeter of the stem has edges!”
He went on, “In fact, there is a silly little poem to help us determine the difference between members of this family that have a similar look!”
I listened, but stayed on the far edge of the hummock I was on. I still had not said a word,
“Sedges have edges, rushes are round, grasses have sections and grow in the ground.”
I expected more and still said nothing.
Undaunted, he proceeded.
“Here, feel the bottom of this plant. You can feel that it has three distinct sides!”
I edged a little bit closer and reached out. He gently put the sedge in my hand. I twirled it between my fingers as he had done and felt the angular edges.
“Notice that it is sheathed from the bottom. You know, parts of the leaf covering other parts of leaf. If this were a grass it would grown in sections that are separated by nodes.”
I had no idea what he was talking about. The stranger looked at his feet.
“Aha!” he proclaimed.
He reached down and picked another blade from the edge of the swamp.
“This one is a grass, see how it grows in sections!”
He gently handed me the plant. Indeed the stem was separated by sections.
“And rushes? I don’t see any here, are round tubes without sections and generally modest sheaths!”
His enthusiasm was infectious but still I did not speak.
He spoke, now, with a certain seriousness.
“Let me show you something.”
He walked about ten feet along the perimeter of the swamp and picked another plant. It had a long drooping seed head. It was graceful and seemed to sweep through the air as he lifted it up to his face.
“See this nodding seed head? This is a fringed sedge! A beautiful name, wouldn’t you say!”
I wasn’t going to say anything.
“And those hummocks you have been hopping on? Those are tussock sedges!”
It was news to me. I never really thought too much about what they were.
And then without any fan fare he looked at his wrist watch.
“Oh my! I’m late and I have to go!”
It seemed strange since he’d only been there for a few minutes but then I realized he could have been walking around the edge of this kettle swamp for a couple of hours.
“Well goodbye! I hope you’ve enjoyed our little chat! Say, you don’t talk much do you?”
I shook my head no.
The stranger, complete in a khaki vest, khaki pants, dungaree shirt, and black knee high boots marched off in a direction away from the swamp.
I walked over the edge and began looking at the plants around my feet.
And though I did not realize it at the time I now had an entirely different way of looking at this swamp; a place that I had escaped into what seemed like a million times but didn’t really know.
Now, some five decades later, I still spend a big part of my life in wetlands. I still feel secure within their womb. I no longer am agile enough to jump from tussock to tussock across an entire kettle swamp but I do still use this method to navigate short distances. My jumps and landings are now typically aided by a long stick to help my balance. After all these years I still am learning about these amazing ecosystems; all full of sedges; often the life blood of a wetland. Certainly the anchor of many a swamp.
Oh, and the stranger?
I never saw him again.
Written for www.wildramblings.com in November 2012.