Carex – Beauty Made for the Shade!
Carex, also known as Sedges, are grass-like plants that are mostly very tough, easy to grow and quite attractive. The Genus Carex includes a wide range of species and cultivars suited to many different garden settings. Most are pest resistant and require only minimal maintenance. Depending on the species, Carex can take sun or shade, or both and varying amounts of moisture. Knowing that shade is difficult for many gardeners, we have selected several to offer you that are particularly suited for shade and that we think are worthy of a place in your garden.
Carex oshimensis (Japanese Sedge) is probably the most popular Carex species for landscaping with its many attractive cultivars. It is evergreen to semi-evergreen and most varieties are hardy to at least zone 5. Like most Carex, its late spring or early summer blooms are rather insignificant. We recommend that this plant be sheared back in early spring before new growth begins, if the foliage needs to be refreshed. Trim to about ¼ to 1/3 its normal height.
Carex oshimensis ‘Everest’ has narrow, deep blue-green, arching leaves that are frosted with silver-white along the edges. It forms tidy mounds up to 18” tall and equally wide. The white on this variety is very bright and can really light up a dark area. We love it in a container that allows its flowing leaves to arch downward creating a brilliant, near-white fountain. ‘Everest’ is prettiest in partial shade with soil that is moist, but well-drained.
Carex oshimensis ‘Evergold’ has been a landscaping standard for many years. Its slender (1/8”) foliage is creamy white to yellow with dark green, narrow edges. It forms 15” X 18” mounds with a swirling habit. Its creamy gold color intensifies as the season progresses. Often used as a ground cover, ‘Evergold’ will slowly spread via rhizomes, but it is not invasive. It likes partial shade and moist soil; however, it is quite drought tolerant once established.
Carex oshimensis ‘Everillo’ is a newer variety and a current favorite here at the nursery. It has a brilliant chartreuse color that becomes more golden with more sun. ‘Everillo’ forms broad flowing 15”-20” wide mounds of 1/3”-1/4” wide leaves that bow gently to the ground. It holds its color all year around and its foliage maintains its good looks in most winters. ‘Everillo’ is very vigorous and will grow well in a container or in the ground. It is happy in part sun to shade with well-drained soil. We recommend partial shade with morning sun and afternoon shade in warmer regions.
A more unusual variety of Carex is Carex oshimensis ‘Feather Falls’. ‘Feather Falls’ is characterized by its long narrow leaves that cascade down like a green and white waterfall. The centers of the leaves are deep emerald green and the narrow edges are bright white. This Carex gets 12” to 18” tall and up to 24” wide. Carex ‘Feather Falls’ prefers full shade to full sun and moist to wet, well-drained soil. Its ability to take full sun makes it particularly useful. It is quite dramatic if grown in a tall container or in a pot on a pedestal that will emphasize its super long leaves. Like the others, it may be trimmed back fairly hard in spring before new shoots begin to appear.
We offer two native Carex, Carex pensylvanica and Carex laxiculmis ‘Hobb’ Bunny Blue.TM
Carex pensylvanica, also known as Oak Sedge, is native to most of the eastern half of the United Sates and Canada. It has very fine semi-evergreen foliage that forms loose clumps that gradually spread via rhizomes and stolons. Plants typically get 8”- 12” tall and spread to about 12”-18”. Carex pensylvanica prefers dappled or partial shade and well-drained, average to moist soil, but it will withstand drought once established. It will tolerate both heavy shade and wet soil. It gets its common name from its natural association with dry woods that include oak trees.
A large planting of Carex pensylvanica will look like a low, billowing sea of green. It makes a wonderful ground cover for slopes where this illusion can really be enjoyed. Oak Sedge can even be used as lawn substitute in partial shade. It may be mown to around 2”-3” a few times a year, or at least once in late winter or early spring. Another interesting thing about Carex pensylvanica is that it is a good pollinator host plant, providing food for several types of caterpillars. It is also used for shelter and nesting material by birds.
Carex laxiculmis is native to the eastern third of the United States and Canada, where it typically grows in rich woods, stream banks, swamp margins, and moist upland forests. It is also called Spreading or Creeping Sedge, but it tends to be clump-forming and only slowly spreads. Carex laxiculmis has fairly broad leaves, about ½” wide and up to 12”-18” long. These are a wonderful glaucous or dusty blue-green. It is usually evergreen throughout most of its range. It prefers average to moist, well-drained soil and is prettiest with consistent moisture. Although it prefers shade, it will tolerate some sun with consistently moist soil. It can also tolerate heavy shade.
We offer the variety called Carex laxiculmis ‘Hobb’ Bunny BlueTM which has the bluest color leaves. It can get about 8”-12” tall by 12”-16” wide. It will slowly naturalize by short rhizomes and seed. Its distinctive blue color sets it apart in the garden. Cut back in late winter or early spring to renew its foliage.
Any of these Carex are nice used in combination with wildflowers, ferns and other shade perennials for an informal look or use them as a nice contrast to Hosta. They can also be used, with the exception of Carex pensylvanica, effectively in containers or as garden or walk edgers. All of them are suitable for use as ground covers and erosion control.
Give Carex a try – we’re sure you will come to appreciate them as much as we do!
Selecting plants that will live and thrive in sunny, dry, rocky areas or rock gardens can be challenging. The plants in this picture were successful in sunny, 12” strips between steps made of railroad ties. The soil is rocky and unirrigated.
Top Step – Sedum ‘Angelina’ (on the left) is showing its bright chartreuse summer color. In winter it will take on shades of orange to red. Sedum acre (on the right) is displaying its early summer yellow blooms, which contrast with the purple-blue spikes of the Nepeta ‘Walker’s Low’ to the right of the steps. The ‘Walker’s Low’ will eventually get 2’-3’ tall as the summer progresses, but the Sedum will stay low and not interfere with foot traffic.
2nd Step – Sedum acre is joined by various Sempervivum, Orostachys iwarenge, a creeping thyme and Violas that self-sowed. To the right, Calylophus ‘Prairie Lode’, a Texas native, displays yellow buttercup blooms on wiry stems dressed with narrow green leaves. It starts its bloom in late spring and will continue into late fall. ‘Prairie Lode’ is a real showstopper and one of our favorites for hot, dry areas. It stays close to the ground at only 6”-8” tall and its spread can easily reach 18”. However, the main plant usually remains about 6” wide and the semi-woody stems do not root in.
3rd Step – Wooly Thyme flows over the left side of the step while Elfin Thyme, growing 1” tall, hugs its neighbor, the magenta flowered Delosperma ‘Tiffindell Magenta’. To the right Thyme ‘Coccineus’ spreads over the edge and blends into surrounding groundcovers.
4th Step – Thyme ‘Pink Chintz’ (center) reaches only 3”-4” tall, which allows the Sedum ‘Dragon’s Blood’ to peek through. Delosperma ‘Kelaidis’ (not available at this time), on the left, is pretty in pink. More Elfin Thyme shares space on the right with Orostachys iwarenge and creeps off the step into white-flowering Pratia angulata. (Yes, the tall sword-leaved plant is a German Iris, another plant great for sunny dry soil.)
Bottom Step – Dying crocus foliage is almost hidden by the dense growth of Wooly Thyme, more Sedum acre, pink blooming Armeria maritima, Acaena ‘Purpurea’ (not available), and Pratia pedunculata with its tiny blue star flowers. More of the Pratia Little Blue Star can be seen to right of the Thyme ‘Coccineus’ flowing off the third step.
If you are planning to create or expand your own sunny rock garden or similar area, look for other cultivars and species of the plants used here, particularly the Sedum, Sempervivum, and Delosperma. Other perennials to consider for your design include Allium, Callirhoe, Dianthus, Gaura, Iberis, Phlox subulata, and Yucca. Be sure to pay attention to a plant’s eventual height and width at maturity so that as your garden develops the plants fill in nicely and don’t become overcrowded for the design. Although all of these plants can tolerate drought or dry soil, they will need adequate moisture while getting established. Check the root ball of new plants regularly, particularly during hot, dry periods to be sure they have some moisture. If they are very dry, give them enough water to moisten the root ball and the soil around the planting hole. Usually, after a few months the plants will have extended their roots into the surrounding soil and will not need supplemental water.
I am an avid gardener of many years who is always looking for an easier way to give me the gratification of gardening with much less physical output. Much of my effort is now centered on growing interesting plants on my shady deck. I am especially enjoying an 18”x 6” outdoor container I purchased at a home goods store. I filled it with soil and added pots of small, low growing plants and tall, textured accent plants on December 4th. We got about a foot of snow one week later so I was a bit worried about how the plants would look during the rest of the long winter months facing me. When the snow finally melted, I was very pleased with the plants’ appearance.
The Carex ‘Everillo’ was the bright yellow focus of my design and the Arum italicum still stood a few inches tall despite the weight of the snow. Contrasting with the yellow Acorus minimus ‘Aureus’ and Veronica ‘Sunshine’ on the left is the very small, dark Heuchera ‘Coco.’ Anchoring the Carex ‘Everillo’ is the one-inch tall Leptinella potentillina which cascades over the edge of the container. On the right, the tiny green leaves of the Cymbalaria aequitriloba and the shiny leaves of the Sedum tetractinum surround my favorite small Heuchera, ‘Blondie.’
I look forward to watching my miniature garden each day this winter and know that I will continue to enjoy these evergreen gems as the weather warms up. Even on a dark rainy day, the yellow and chartreuse tones outside my window find a way to lift my spirits. I smile at how much enjoyment the 20 minutes of work and design are able to bring me.