One of the best native groundcovers available to gardeners is Pennsylvania Sedge. A short grass that fills itself in over time, that can thrive in shade seems like a dream come true for those with woodland gardens or battling invasive plants. This article will cover all aspects of this plant including:
- What is Pennsylvania Sedge
- What are the benefits of Pennsylvania Sedge
- Identification / Characteristics
- How to grow and care for Pennsylvania Sedge
- What Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases effect Pennsylvania Sedge
- Where to buy Pennsylvania Sedge
- Uses of Pennsylvania Sedge
- Final thoughts
What is Pennsylvania Sedge
Pennsylvania Sedge is a grass-like perennial native to North America. Scientifically known as Carex pensylvanica, it grows 8” tall in sun to full shade on well drained medium-moist to dry sites. Also beneficial to wildlife, multiple insects and grasshoppers feed on Pennsylvania Sedge, while birds enjoy the seed and use as nest material. 
The natural habitat of Pennsylvania Sedge is dry to medium-moist woodlands that allow either dappled sunlight or full shade. Spreading by stolons, it spreads and fills in gaps in the forest and can help reduce erosion. 
It’s spreading nature combined with it’s soft feel make Pennsylvania Sedge an alternative to grass for shady areas. It can form a carpet, but doesn’t grow above 8 inches. I’m attempting to utilize Pennsylvania Sedge in my never-ending battle against invasive species in the forest behind my house. I’ve grown several specimens on a wooded slope, hoping that they are able to successfully spread and reclaim the soil from the Japanese Stilt Grass and other invasive species.
Native Range of Pennsylvania Sedge
Pennsylvania Sedge is primarily native to the upper Midwest, Mid-Atlantic, New England, and the Canadian provinces of Manitoba, Ontario, and Southern Quebec.
Pennsylvania Sedge Reference Table
|Scientific Name||Carex pensylvanica|
|Common Name(s)||Pennsylvania Sedge, Oak Sedge, Sun Sedge|
|Native Range, USDA Zone||North America, USDA Hardiness Zones 3-8|
|Bloom Duration, Color||Two weeks, yellow|
|Height||6″-12″ (15-30 cm)|
|Spacing / Spread||6″-12″ (15-30 cm)|
|Light Requirements||Sun to full shade|
|Soil Types||Sandy loam to loam|
|Moisture||Dry to medium-moisture|
|Fauna Associations / Larval Hosts||Grasshoppers, birds, waterfowl|
What are the Benefits of Pennsylvania Sedge
The texture of Pennsylvania Sedge is soft and gentle. It is comfortable to brush up against or walk on barefoot.
There aren’t many grass or grass-like plants that can grow well in shade. But Pennsylvania Sedge will grow and spread, particularly in cooler seasons when the soil temperature is lower. This can make for a great addition to any woodland or shade garden.
Pennsylvania Sedge will fill in gaps as it spreads vegetatively via above ground stolons. And this can be nice because as the saying goes ‘nature abhors a vacuum’, if empty spaces are filled with Pennsylvania Sedge, it can help keep other invasive or less desirous plants at bay.
The short stature of Pennsylvania Sedge means it won’t be ‘all that you see’. Getting it established will mean you can have ‘green’ but still be able to view wildlife unobstructed.
This benefit can only be taken advantage of by those who use it as a partial or full shade lawn, but the short height of Pennsylvania Sedge means it never needs to be mowed.
Identification and Characteristics of Pennsylvania Sedge
New shoots will emerge in Autumn or Winter. And growth will begin in Spring. Individual shoots tend to live 24 months or less.
At the top of a stem, there will be a spikelet of flowers ½-1” (12-25mm) long by 1/16” diameter (1.5mm) on a short stem. It will be cream to yellow in color, which are actually the anthers of the flower. Pennsylvania Sedge will bloom for approximately two weeks in early Spring. 
Grow and Care for Pennsylvania Sedge
In fact, most references state it can’t grow in sun, although one can encounter it on fully exposed ridge tops at higher elevations. For instance the photograph below shows some Pennsylvania Sedge I encountered on a high ridge in West Virginia. This colony was full exposed to the elements.
For soil texture, Pennsylvania Sedge will prefer sandy loam to loam. But again, the soil should be well-draining.
So, consider this before trying to establish it on soil that has been heavily compacted. If you have reason to think construction vehicles have driven over it in the last 20 years, consider doing a drainage test.
Every 2-3 years you can divide Pennsylvania Sedge in very early Spring, relocating it to new areas. This by far the most efficient way to spread the plant.
Pennsylvania Sedge should not require fertilizer of any kind.
How to Grow Pennsylvania Sedge from Seed
Pennsylvania Sedge and actually all Carex species are well known for being difficult to grow from seed. However, recent research has found a treatment to achieve germination rates as high as 70% by subjecting the seeds to a 12 week warm stratification period and slightly covering the soil. And other research has found similar results with warm stratification being more effective at achieving a high germination rate.
When I first grew my own from seed several years ago, I didn’t have this information. I simply Winter Sowed them on the surface of the soil, and had perhaps 15% germination. So while I did end up with some plants, were I to do it again I would significantly modify my process.
Since the aforementioned studies both found warm stratification to be the main driver of breaking achene (seed) dormancy in Pennsylvania Sedge, in Winter I would purchase seed. I would then simulate/subject the seed to warm stratification starting in January.
To warm stratify seed, you would follow the steps in this guide for the paper towel method, but instead of placing the seed mixture in the refrigerator, you would place it somewhere that is warm. Now, in one of the research papers they used a warm stratification temperature of 22C (71.6F). So keeping it at room temperature should be ok. Warm stratify it for 12-16 weeks, checking for mold periodically. Then, sow the seed in March/April as you normally would.
Fill a container with moist potting soil, and tamp firm. Then, scatter some seed on top. Finally, give it a very light dusting of soil on top, and water by misting. Place the container where it can get morning sun/afternoon shade.
Wildlife, Pests, and Diseases associated with Pennsylvania Sedge
The flowers of Pennsylvania Sedge are wind-pollinated, so this plant doesn’t support bees or butterflies. But there are many other insects that feed on the foliage.
Numerous leafhoppers and grasshoppers have been documented feeding on foliage, as well as the larvae of some moths. 
Various birds will feed on the seed of Pennsylvania Sedge. Songbirds such as Dark Eyed Juncos and sparrows have been observed eating seed. And larger game birds like Grouse, Prairie Chickens, and Turkeys also enjoy eating the seeds. 
Furthermore, Pennsylvania Sedge will give cover to migratory waterfowl and sandhill cranes. Ducks, grouse, and prairie chickens will all use it for nesting material.
Deer and Rabbits
Pennsylvania Sedge doesn’t seem to be bothered by Deer and Rabbits.
I’ve not seen any reference discuss disease. As long as you plant Pennsylvania Sedge in conditions it will tolerate, it should be disease free.
Where you can buy Pennsylvania Sedge
Pennsylvania Sedge is not typically sold in nurseries, as it isn’t a typical ‘garden friendly’ plant. But it can be purchased at specialty nurseries that deal in Native Plants. You can find native plant nurseries near you on our interactive map.
Where to buy seeds
We have ordered a variety of native flower seeds from Everwilde Farms, which you can order right from Amazon through our link on our RECOMMENDED PRODUCTS PAGE. Note – Everwilde Farms sells it as ‘Oak Sedge’, but botanically it is Carex pensylvanica. (We may earn a small commission when you purchase through our links, at no cost to you. This helps support our website.)
Uses of Pennsylvania Sedge
Pennsylvania Sedge can be used for erosion control. It’s spreading nature via rhizomes mean that it can quickly colonize disturbed habitats in/near woods. This leaves will then act as a barrier between rain and soil, slowing down the water flow. The roots will also allow infiltration of water to the soil, thereby reducing erosion.
Pennsylvania Sedge can be used as a short ornamental, accent, or as a substitute for a lawn. It’s short stature means it can fit in almost anywhere, and it’s adaptability mean it can grow almost anywhere too.
Additionally this grass is great for a woodland garden, or forest setting. I’m trying to get several populations going in the woods behind my house right now, hoping that I can divide it in Spring to increase the population. I like the idea of a short growing grass plant that can help fight off invasive species. As any piece of ground growing Pennsylvania Sedge is not growing Japanese Stilt Grass!
There are some nice early Spring ephemerals that grow nicely around Pennsylvania Sedge. Some examples would be the following plants:
I have not found any documented uses of Pennsylvania Sedge medicinally or through other means.
Pennsylvania Sedge is a low growing groundcover that is not aggressive, but given time will colonize many areas. It can be the perfect choice for someone who wants a low maintenance lawn, or is looking to do something for wildlife in their backyard.
I’m interested to see how my experiment works out in using it to fight invasive plants. So far so good, but next year I will be dividing several to expand their population. Ultimately I’m hoping these few specimens will be able to reproduce enough over the years to help create a woodland wonderland that is free of invasive species.
 – Carex Pensylvanica. USDA NRCS. Accessed 12JUN2023.
 – Cope, Amy B. 1992. Carex pensylvanica. In: Fire Effects Information System, [Online]. U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station, Fire Sciences Laboratory (Producer). Available: https://www.fs.usda.gov/database/feis/plants/graminoid/carpes/all.html [2023, June 12].
 – Crins, William J., and Peter W. Ball. “The taxonomy of the Carex pensylvanica complex (Cyperaceae) in North America.” Canadian Journal of Botany 61.6 (1983): 1692-1717.
 – Fernald, Merritt Lyndon. 1950. Gray’s manual of botany. Portland, OR: Dioscorides Press. 1632 p. (Dudley, Theodore R., gen. ed.; Biosystematics, Floristic & Phylogeny Series; vol. 2)
 – Bernard, John M. “Life history and vegetative reproduction in Carex.” Canadian Journal of Botany 68.7 (1990): 1441-1448.
 – Reaume, Tom. 620 Wild Plants Of North America : Fully Illustrated, University of Toronto Press, 2009, pp788.
 – Abrams, Marc D., and Donald I. Dickmann. “Early revegetation of clear-cut and burned jack pine sites in northern lower Michigan.” Canadian Journal of Botany 60.6 (1982): 946-954.
 – Doshas, Alexis C., Cathryn Cayte McDonough, and K. Miho Connolly. “Seed propagation protocol for Carex pensylvanica.” Native Plants Journal 22.1 (2021): 45-50.
 – McGinnis, Esther E., and Mary H. Meyer. “After-ripening, stratification, and perigynia removal enhance Pennsylvania sedge germination.” HortTechnology 21.2 (2011): 187-192.
 – Hamerstrom, F. N. “A study of Wisconsin prairie chicken and sharp-tailed grouse.” The Wilson Bulletin 51.2 (1939): 105-120.
 – Blewett, T. “Prairie and savanna restoration in the Necedah National Wildlife Refuge.” Proceedings, 5th Midwest prairie conference. 1976. Accessed 12JUN2023.
 – Massachussetts Buffer Manual, Massachussetts Department of Environmental Protection. 2003, pp.111
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