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What's the Difference Between Grass and Sedge?

What's the Difference Between Grass and Sedge?


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What's the difference between grasses and sedges? in terms of anatomy and classification.


Short answer

Sedges have edges, and they're in different families.

See Minnesota Wildflowers for a great summary with images.

Long answer

Both are in the order Poales, but they are in different families:

  • Grasses = Poaceae (of the graminid clade)

  • Sedges = Cyperaceae (of the [non-monophyletic]1 cypirid lineage)

Some anatomical differences:

Compiled using info from here and here

Source: New York Botanical Garden


Citations

1. Bouchenak-Khelladi, Y., Muasya, A.M. and Linder, H.P., 2014. A revised evolutionary history of Poales: origins and diversification. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 175(1):4-16.


Sedges and Grasses

Long ago, when people were a bit more flexible and in touch with the land, there was a short little rhyme that taught people how to separate sedges from grasses. It is no longer socially acceptable, but goes “Sedges have edges and cut, Rushes rush down with joints in the ground, but Grasses like asses are round and have holes” This taught young and old alike how to differentiate the two crude and funny, but everybody would remember. Back then the differences were important. Why was this important and is it still important today?

For starters sedges have tough triangular stem. The edges can indeed cut or tear skin, just as paper can, and those cuts can hurt. If one was collecting feed for sick animals, you don’t want to feed them a sedge. Not only is it harder to digest, but the edges will make the mouth sore and the animal will be less likely to eat. Proper nutrition is essential for helping an animal recover from illness.

The rushes mentioned were usually located around ponds, stream or marshes and used for weaving and making baskets. A common rush would be “cattails”. They look like grasses and sedges, but are different.

Grasses are digestible, circular and smooth making some nice bedding and easy on the mouth. They are also nutritious. Most grasses are edible and they include oats, corn, and Fescue for livestock, to just name a few. Grasses are also used on lawns, golf courses and playing fields, they are tough, but don’t cut. Some popular types for this include Coastal Bermuda, Zoysia, and St. Augustine.

So, while few people cut their own fodder for livestock, it is still important to be able to differentiate between sedges and grasses. On hikes or even walks in the park, many people will pick a blade of “grass” and chew on it. If one gets a sedge, this can be dangerous. Many types of sedges are poisonous, and that can be really bad for a healthy animal much less a sick one. Star Grass, which is a sedge, can increase urinary tract flow, inconvenient for an older person but a young child can die of dehydration. Ironically enough, it is this diuretic effect that makes Star Grass useful. In the old days, it was made into medicinal teas to get rid of water retention and lose weight.

Are there any other reasons why it is important to know the difference between sedges and grasses? Only that all knowledge is valuable, even if it is outdated or seems weird. One never knows what one may need to know!


Rushes

The rushes, Juncaceae, resemble grasses and sedges visually but uniquely have a 6-parted perianth (perianth = floral organs where petals and sepals are not distinguished). The fruit in Juncus opens along three lines as opposed to remaining closed in grasses and sedges, and contains multiple seeds rather than one. In the illustration below, note the 6 tepals at "d" and the 3-parted fruit at "e" and "f".

In the Juncus effusus below you can see the fruits opening by three slits.

Additionally, Rushes have what look like six petals surrounding the flower, resembling a tiny Easter Lily.

Rush fruits surrounded by "petals":

Vocabulary help:
The perianth (PEAR-ee-anth) is the combination of sepals and petals---the non-sexual parts of the flower. Tepals (TEA-pulls) are perianth parts where sepals and petals are not differentiated, much like having petals with no sepals.


Grasses

Grasses spread by clumping or running. Clumping grasses stay in the same place, with tufts increasing in circumference through development of new divisions called culms. Spreading or creeping grasses can cover great distances through development of runners, or stolons. Creeping grasses generally grow during warm weather and go dormant during cool weather, compared to clumping grasses that slow down in growth, but remain green throughout the year. Lawns are established by seed for clumping, tuft-forming grasses, and certain spreading grasses. However, many creeping grasses are only propagated by vegetative means through laying sod or planting sprigs or stolons.


Sedge Weed Control ID

The best way to identify sedge is from its seed head.

  • Yellow nutsedge has a yellow seed head, is common in northern zones, and has excellent cold tolerance.
  • Purple sedge has purple seed heads and dark green foliage.

These are the most common sedge plants but for identification of others, you may have to take a specimen to your county extension or master gardener’s clinic.

Most sedges are well controlled by frequent mowing to remove the seed heads and prevent spreading. In the event that you have a widespread problem, you will have to resort to herbicide sedge weed control.

Pre-emergence herbicides have little effect for controlling sedge weeds. Spot application of the appropriate herbicide can be effective or broad range spraying for extreme sedge lawn weeds. As with any herbicide application, read the directions and follow the safety precautions recommended by the manufacturer.


Grass & Sedge Comparison Chart

The Grass & Sedge Comparison Chart is a list of common grass and sedge perennials grown at Johnson's Nursery. Grasses and sedge are versatile ornamental plants used landscapes, and vary in sun preferences, sizes, colors, textures, and habits from low clump forming to strongly upright. Grasses have a range of bloom times from early spring through fall, but most of them offer fall and winter interest, like conifers. Some grasses are Wisconsin native plants!

Ornamental grass varieties are incredibly popular and important landscape decorations in the ladscape. Also consider using an ornamental grass in your container garden! Grasses are very popular for adding vertical interest to gardens and landscapes, but they also add wildlife value with food and nesting.

Featured image: Andropogon gerardii

The Grass & Sedge Comparison Chart is not available on mobile devices. Please visit this topic on a tablet or computer.

Left: Wisconsin native Carex grayii | Middle: Miscanthus sinensis 'Purpurascens' | Right: Molina caerulea 'Variegata'


National Forage & Grasslands Curriculum

The major plant families that are used as forages are: grass (Poaceae previously known as Gramineae), legumes (Fabaceae previously known as Leguminosae), forbs, shrubs, brassicas, and some trees.

Seventy-five percent of forages are grasses. Of the 10,000 grass species, about 40 are commonly used as forage. Grasses are usually herbaceous, which indicates that they produce a seed, do not develop woody tissue, and die down at the end of a growing season. They are annual or perennial. They are monocotyledonous which means one leaf sprouts from the seed, and they often have jointed, slender, sheathing (wrapping) leaves. Grasses can be large, like bamboo or corn, or small like annual bluegrass. Grass plants develop fruit called grain which feeds much of the world. Though the grain is valued by humans, grasses have green leaves and stems not digestible for humans that are the main food source for animals. Some grain is fed to livestock but the leaves and stems are the mainstay of animal feed. Grasses also can be used for building materials, medicines, and biomass fuels. Grasses are very widespread, adapting to many locations.

Legumes make up the second most common plant family used as forage. Of 12,000 legume species worldwide, about 40 are commonly used for forage. The area where legumes may grow is more restricted than that of grasses, and legumes often require more care or management to survive and be productive. However, legumes are important because they participate in a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing bacteria called rhizobium. These bacteria reduce (change) atmospheric nitrogen to a form available to the plant. Legumes, therefore, do not require as much nitrogen fertilizer, a costly item for producers to provide. They are often planted with grasses to provide nitrogen to the soil and to provide more protein, as legumes are higher in cellular protein than grasses. Legumes are dicotyledons, which means that two leaves emerge from the soil. Legumes can be annual, perennial, or biennial. They produce a pod as their fruit which is indicated by the name "legume". Legume means: a monocarpellary (one-chambered) fruit containing a single row of seeds which dehisces (splits) along both seams (ribs, sutures). There are thousands of legume species in the world but less than 40 are used commonly for forage. The legume family includes clovers, medics, and trefoils.

Forbs are herbaceous (not woody), broadleaf plants that are not grass-like. Grass-like plants include sedges (Cyperaceae) and rushes (Juncaceae). Forbs are herbs other than grasses. Examples include: comfrey, small burnet, and chicory. Sunflowers are becoming more popular as a forage forb.

Shrubs are low, several-stemmed, woody plants such as: tumbleweed (kochia), blackberry, and wild rose.

Mustards (Brassica) have been used to supplement livestock feed for over 600 years. Brassicas are biennials, producing a vegetable the first year and seed in the second but are usually used as annuals in forage-livestock systems. Some producers used to harvest the crop and feed it to the animals. Now, it is more common to see animals grazing the crop which does take a bit of practice on the animal's part. Some of the brassicas are used for their leaves and some for their root portions. The major examples include turnip roots swedes which include common or oil-bearing rapes: and cabbages which include kales. (A cross between Chinese cabbage and Stubble Turnip has produced Tyfon.) Rape and turnips have regrowth potential. Brassicas are nutritious with high protein and energy capacity. Often these crops tolerate cold temperatures well and are used to extend the foraging season. In some areas they can be grown year round and do not demand a lot of cultivation. They do require much moisture but are intolerant of poor drainage. They are tolerant of several soil types.

Trees are known as woody, with one main stem and branches. But trees can also be shrubs or herbs with a tree-like formation (arborsecent). Leaves of some trees are foraged by livestock and wildlife. The acacia tree is often grazed by giraffes.


The word "forb" is derived from Greek phorbḗ ( φορβή ), meaning "pasture" or "fodder". [3] [4] The hellenic spelling "phorb" is sometimes used, and in older usage this sometimes includes graminids and other plants currently not regarded as forbs.

Forbs are members of a guild—a group of plant species with broadly similar growth form. [5] In certain contexts in ecology, guild membership may often be more important than the taxonomic relationships between organisms.

In addition to its use in ecology, the term "forb" may be used for subdividing popular guides to wildflowers, [6] distinguishing them from other categories such as grasses, sedges, shrubs, and trees. [7] Some examples of forbs are clovers, sunflowers, daylilies, and milkweed.


Sedges

Yellow Nut Sedge (Cyperus esculentus)

Season: rapidly spreading, aggressive, erect perennial

Stem: slender, smooth, pithy and 3-angled (triangular in cross section), arising from rhizomes, tubers or basal bulbs

Height: up to 24 inches tall

Roots: fibrous, branched, with tubers on rhizomes

Leaf blade: yellowish green, prominent midvein, flat or slightly corrugated, 0.2 to 0.5 inch wide, waxy or shiny appearance, 3-ranked and growing from basal bulb, leaves usually as long or longer than flowering stem, blade tapering to long thin tip

Seed head: short, subtending leaf-like bracts, flattened, yellowish-brown spikelets, clustered around the ends of a few to 10 branches of unequal length

Propagated by: seeds, creeping rootstock (rhizomes), or small underground nutlets. Nutlets (tubers) are brown, round, lack hairs, 0.5 to 0.75 inch long and may lie dormant in soil several years. Nutlets are individually produced and sweet or neutral to taste.

Comments: prefers moist to dry cultivated soils and does not tolerate shade

Purple Nut Sedge (Cyperus rotundus)

Season: rapidly spreading, aggressive, erect perennial

Stem: erect, smooth, solid, triangular in cross section, arising from tuber or basal bulb, and usually longer than leaves

Height: up to 1.5 feet high

Roots: extensively branched, fibrous, with tubers on rhizomes

Leaf blade: deep-green, originates from the base of the plant, 3-ranked and grass-like, flat or slightly corrugated, prominent mid vein, 1/8 to 1/3 inch wide, and abruptly tapering to sharp point. Leaf is dark green, smooth, shiny, and usually shorter than stem.

Seed head: short subtending leaf-like bracts, numerous, flattened, red to purple brown spikelets clustered at the end of the stalk on a few to several branches

Propagated by: slender creeping rootstocks (rhizomes) and nutlets (tubers). Nutlets are covered with hairs and are bitter to the taste. Multiple nutlets are produced forming a tuber chain.

Comments: thrives in moist sandy soils but does not tolerate shade, often thought to be the world's worst weed

Green Kyllinga (Kyllinga brevifolia (Cyperus brevifolius))

Season: mat-forming perennial

Stem: dark green, arising from purple rhizomes, with 3 subtending leaves on the end of the flower stalk

Height: up to 18 inches tall, frequently about 6 inches tall

Leaf blade: dark green, 1 to 5 inches long and narrow

Flower stalk: triangular in cross section

Seed head: subtended by a few leaf-like bracts, usually one, occasionally 2 or 3 heads, initially pale green and often turning brown at maturity, globe-shaped and 1/4 inch in diameter

Seed: oval, flat in cross section (1/16 inch long)

Propagated by: seeds and rhizomes

Comments: found in low areas where moisture is excessive, can form large mats

Annual Sedge, Watergrass (Cyperus compressus)

Height: 4 to 18 inches tall

Roots: reddish, fibrous, extensively branching, lacks rhizomes

Leaf blade: basal, 3-ranked, elongated and narrow (0.1 inch wide) and usually equal to or shorter than stem

Seed head: few to several, flat, greenish, spikelets at end of stem

Seed: dull brown, 3-sided, 1/16 inch long at maturity

Comments: found in sandy, moist soils, can form large tangled masses

Cylindric Sedge (Cyperus retrorsus)

Season: erect perennial

Height: up to 20 inches tall

Roots: fibrous, may form short rhizomes

Leaf blade: bright green, flat, smooth

Seed head: with 3-7 leaf-like bracts at top of stem, few to several branches of tight cylindrical clustered spikelets, green and turning brown to black at maturity

Propagated by: seeds and the very short rhizomes

Comments: grass-like, occurs in most sandy habitats, extremely common

Globe Sedge (Cyperus croceus (Cyperus globulosus))

Almost identical to Cylindric Sedge. Differs in that the seed heads are globular instead of cylindrical.

Height: up to 20 inches tall

Roots: fibrous, may form short rhizomes

Leaf blade: bright green, flat, smooth

Seed head: with 3&ndash7 leaf-like bracts at top of stem, few to several branches of tight globular clustered spikelets, green and turning brown to black at maturity

Propagated by: seeds and very short rhizomes

Comments: grass-like, occurs in dry to moist sandy habitats, extremely common

Surinam Sedge (Cyperus surinamensis)

Stem: erect, triangular with rounded edges, covered with downward curving prickles

Height: up to 3 feet tall

Leaf blade: up to 1/2 inch wide, green, flat

Seed head: numerous, flattened, heads of spikelets, subtended by a few to several leaf-like bracts

Seed: triangular, 1/32 inch long, tiny bump at bottom end

Comments: found in ditches and moist, wet sites, easily identified by lightly pulling fingers upward on the stem to check for the downward curving prickles

Texas Sedge (Cyperus polystachyos)

Stem: erect, rounded, smooth

Height: up to 20 inches tall

Leaf blade: up to 1/8 inch wide, basal

Seed head: few to many branches, many flattened spikelets, clustered at ends of branches

Seed: weakly triangular, 1/32 inch long, covered with tiny bumps, brownish-gray

Comments: extremely common, a facultative species growing in all dry and wet soils


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I love C. pennsylvanica. also the Cherokee one. I can get them "going" in clumps in containers or a few spots in the ground, but apparently it is too hot here to have a large expanse such as you have. and we have in the NC mts.

Your "lawn" sounds wonderful!

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Comments:

  1. Istvan

    It's regular conditionality

  2. Jenny-Lee

    but in general it's funny.

  3. Kajijinn

    Rather amusing piece

  4. Kazrale

    Wonderful, useful information



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