Carex, Where Have You Been All My Life?

By Steffie Littlefield

(This article was first published in The Gateway Gardener May 2006 issue)
An image of carex 'Ice Dance'

Carex 'Ice Dance'

After being given the assignment of writing on a small ornamental grass (sedge, actually) called carex, a subject I feared was very limited, I went to my bulging bookshelf of garden resources for new information. The first three books I choose did not even list it. One book was on designing with ornamental grasses, the second a color encyclopedia of garden perennials and the third a book on perennials for the lower Midwest, none of which even had a reference to this plant.  No wonder this plant is unknown to the average gardener.  I finally came across the carex family in an older reliable resource, where it was listed as a “huge genus of mainly hardy deciduous and evergreen perennials thriving in a wide range of conditions and situations. Grown generally for their attractive foliage, often colorful or variegated.”

Another well-respected resource described it as having “grass-like leaves” and that it does well in the shade, setting it apart from what we commonly think of as ‘Ornamental Grasses.’  Another book (I told you I have a lot of gardening books) listed one of its attributes as forming a thick covering into which few weeds will venture. Now, this plant sounds too good to be true.  It is way more interesting than liriope.  Who has been keeping this a secret, the Hosta Society?  After you read the rest of this article you will be planting carex this season.

Carex is commonly called Japanese Sedge and comes in white variegated, golden, black (a dark blue green), bronze and bright green drooping forms.  These fine-textured, graceful plants all grow in part to full shade, a garden designers dream come true.  Here are a few plant combos to try in your garden:

–Sometimes a beautiful burgundy-leaved Japanese maple seems lost in the shade garden.  Under plant it with Carex ‘Ice Dance’, whose bright white variegation lights up the garden making the leaves of Japanese maples glow.

–Many gardeners fell in love with the bronze-leaved heucheras at the garden center only to be disappointed with their impact in the garden.  Plant Carex ‘Evergold’ as a background for those dark ruffled leaved beauties and see how rich and lavish they can look.

–Most shade gardens have turned into Hosta gardens in the summer.  When those big leaves are mixed with Carex ‘Bowles Golden’ the contrast of texture adds new interest.  This carex reaches 24” with gentle arching leaves which are narrow strips of gold turning bright green late in summer.

–In a dark spot try ‘Blue Zinger’ to create a sea of soft blue.  This great plant tolerates dry

an image of carex 'Blue Zinger'

Carex 'Blue Zinger'

shady conditions and only grows 6” tall.

–For an exciting plant combo along the edge of a pond, near a fountain or a birdbath, try golden creeping jenny with its small round leaves and that lie flat on the ground, Carex ‘Oehme’ growing short leaves with fine gold edges in a fan-like shape, and Ligularia ‘Desdemona’ producing large bronze and purple leaves and a 3-4’ flower stalk with yellow-orange flowers.  The mix of textures and colors will be unforgettable.

The garden designer’s challenge is to find the right plant for every situation or condition.  Carex is my new favorite plant for shade to part shade, dry to wet. It will add color, brightness or a soft fine texture to a perennial planting.  It is even wonderful in containers mixed with seasonal annuals, where it survives most temperature changes.  How could those gardening books have overlooked this perfect companion plant? Carex, where have you been all my life?

Steffie Littlefield is a horticulturist and garden designer at Garden Heights Nursery. She has degrees from St. Louis Community College at Meramec and Southeast Missouri State and is a member of Gateway Professional Horticultural Association and president of Horticulture Co-op of Metropolitan St. Louis. You can also find out about her family vineyard and event venue at