Carex: Important Non-Grass

Pronounced “K-Rex,” this genus of grass-like plant has more than 600 species in North America, 165 in the Rocky Mountain region of the USA. The differences are small and called “insignificant.” About them was once said, “possibly no group of vascular plants is less understood by range ecologists than are the sedges.”

Image of Carex Acutiformis from Wikimedia Commons

Carex Acutiformis, a variety from Europe used to decorate gardens and ponds.

A Dictionary of Plant Sciences, 3rd edition, by Oxford University Press states Carex are also known by the term sedges. They are a genus of rhizomatic perennial herbs. The stems are triangular in cross-section, solid, and leafy. The leaves are linear with a sheathing leaf base. The arrangement of the flowers on the plant varies from a branched panicle to a single spike, and is composed of unisexual flowers, usually clearly separated. The fruit produced is a small nut, which remains within a sac once created. The male flowers have 2 or 3 stamens and are generally held at the top of the flowering arrangement, often in the upper ends of the spikes. The female flowers are restricted to the bottom of the spike. Carex species ar

e found throughout the world, often as components of marshy habitats. There are roughly 1,000 species, of which a limited number are used locally as food or bedding for animals and a few are cultivated as ornamental “grasses” for gardens.

Difficult to identify and very site-specific, those of us working in Rural System see the very precise site requirements for Carex species as an open door to potential plant observations and confirmation, rather than a discovery operation, by finding the multi-factored sites of these frail animal-food sources. Carex species are food sources considered too small and too similar and too site-specific to rank with other species, ¬where farmers (rarely “range managers”) intently study profits from “grassland-like” plants.

The Carex are too easily lumped as “grasses.” I’ve had the pleasure (in approximately 1954) of being taught the diverse characteristics of these grass-like plants. I now think that with improved herbaria of the state and region (USA), new GIS site characterization, and with new imperatives for productive human-food sources from despoiled farm and mined lands of the Virginia rural areas, a meaningful, profitable, site-specific, Carex-forage production system can be created for now and the emerging faunal-future, with domestic and wild-fauna uses.

Image of Carex stricta from Wikimedia Commons

Carex stricta, a variety found throughout the Eastern United States along bodies of water.

I now imagine improved education of staff, learning about the Virginia Carex species with vastly-improved illustrations, naming the plant parts and their seasonal appearance. With education, they can achieve reduced intermixing of “just grass,” site-selection for seeding and care-to-meet-needs, and directed analyses of animal production per unit area of animal forage—invested to meet specific-animal productivity.

We know that the Carex are similar to grasses, were evaluated as being of higher protein value than blue grasses, but were ignored or discounted in the past due to their specific habitat requirements. We hypothesize we can now contest with those specific habitat requirements, with local selections, GIS-based site-selection, and quality-specific uses and results-analyses. “They, these little grasses, are ‘very-site-specific,’” says the range manager. And so are we, within Rural System. We can improve seed-source selection and make very site-specific selections to achieve intensive, cumulative, very-real, net-valued grassland management of Rural System tracts for superior forage. Much of Rural System’s superior forage would be directed at goat systems (having notably high palatability differences among Carex species) for human-youth health gains, as a currently-specific market.

We now see precisely, as if through a macroscope, a way to develop Carex centers throughout Virginia’s rural lands, create a high-quality forage specialty with great sales appeal, and work with a regional Carex organization, formed to bring raw botanical complexity and unique applications and developments on managed rural lands, to bear profitable, lasting, diverse gains for people. A staff can be built readily, within PowerPlace of Rural System, to develop a new resource under-foot for region-wide use and development… just some old non-grass patches!

For the future, food scarcity and crop growth will become an increasing concern. Feeding livestock with alternates to standard grasses, especially those higher in nutrient density that take up fewer resources per square acre to grow, will become a primary solution. If we are to keep meat on the menu, we have to invest in these plans sooner rather than later.


Rural Future: An Alternative for Society Before 2050 AD describes one system, Rural System, designed to meet the many interconnected rural problems in America, and ultimately worldwide. Visit the book page to download the full manuscript or individual chapters in .pdf format. Subscribe to the Rural System blog to receive more supplements to Rural Future on a variety of topics relating to the future of superior rural land management.

This is a supplement to Rural Future. Find other supplements in the Rural Futures Supplements category.


Allaby, M. (Ed.). ( 2012). A Dictionary of Plant Sciences (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press.

F.J. Hermann, 19760, 65, 68, Notes on Rocky Mt. Carices. Rhodora 70. 419-421.

Lewis, M.E. 1958. Carex- its distribution and importance in Utah. Brigham Young Univ., Sci. Bull. Biological Ser. I, No.2. Provo, Utah. 43 sp.





A Rural System Case Study: The Morel Mushroom Forest System

Rural System, Inc., the forming enterprise, plans to work with simple and complex systems. Understanding and managing natural systems based on the best available knowledge can lead to improvements in the benefits had from the system. In this case, by understanding the system in which morel mushrooms are best propagated, land managers are able to manage the system to obtain more morel mushrooms in a given season.

morel forestEcology is the study of plants and animals and their relations to each other and their environment. Thus, ecology is the study of almost everything in rural areas. That’s what ecologists have to examine, and some as those within Rural System try to use the results of such studies to improve human conditions or prevent them from worsening.

As an ecologist I like to think in terms of systems; a pickup truck would be a good example of a system. I know it has parts and needs like gas, oil, and anti-freeze. Some seem more important than others, but they all need to work for the many purposes for which the truck was designed.

I studied a forest system in Ohio, worked as a game biologist within a land system in northwestern Virginia, and taught wildlife management at the University of Idaho and Virginia Tech. I remember well a simple system, which we can call briefly: “the morel mushroom, mouse, root-threads, tree-growth, deer, snake, and evapotranspiration system” …or perhaps the morel mushroom forest system.

Morels are very tasty wild mushrooms. In early spring morel hunters went with their small buckets under my study-area boundary signs to search for and pick mushrooms. I appreciated their enthusiasm for the hunt for buttered, fried morels! Yet too rare, and too intensely harvested, the morels never had the chance to contribute all of their spores for reproduction throughout the forest.

Mice eat them too, making nature’s taste attraction the forest’s future. The mice spread the spores underground where they grow into hair-thin rootlets, moving water and nutrients among tree roots. (This subsystem, hidden like the pick-up of modern electronics, is much more important than many people realize. If the rootlets are thirsty, trees and shrubs are stressed, disease appears, and valued tree growth slows.) The unseen hordes of mice and voles are “managers” of the nutritional, rooting soil layer in the sense that they distribute the spores that create this valuable subsystem.

Yet humans are not the only over-harvesting threat to morel propagation: deer populations exploded. Unregulated by predators and dense hardwood forests and aided by new farm-food, deer also eat morels! Scientists know the modern deer populations are endangering some plant species; they are eating too much, and putting too much pressure on the system! Maybe morels, other “forest stand quality indices,” or other growth measures are being decreased as a result of this pressure.

Foresters and ecologists study the combined values of precipitation (rain, snow, and hail), evaporation of forest soil moisture (conservation of which is essential for morels), and transpiration (the moisture loss from tree leaves and stems) together with temperature and solar radiation in equations. The results are called “evapotranspiration.” Tree growth and disease resistance are intimately locked to evapotranspiration.

If we take a step back and look at how everything connects in the system, the picture might sound like a nursery rhyme. Snakes influence mouse populations, that influence the morel rooting zone structure, that influences spore placement, that influence the seed start-up success zone, that influences root-spread, that influences what trees species occupy what sites as well as site quality… all in a system in which humans depend for wonderful fried mushrooms, game, shrubs, lumber and paper, ground-water recharge, occasional mysterious snakes, and beautiful recreation areas.

Rural System seeks to take the understanding we have of these systems and manage them for the ultimate mutual benefit of communities and landowners, as well as for general ecosystem “health.” Many people wonder how managing ecosystems can make that much of a difference in terms of profits off the land. This case of morel mushrooms is just one example of how real goods can be obtained from knowledge-based land management.

The Human Health Costs of Environmental Degradation

We’ve talked about how land management practices can affect long-term profits off the land, but profits aren’t the only thing at stake. Land management directly affects how ecological functions help or harm human health. Effects on human health can be as obvious as how pollution affects the lungs or as convoluted as how forest cover affects malaria. This is best illustrated with examples.Photo by Risa Pesapane in Uganda: deforestation and erosion.Children in Uganda pose before deforested hills with erosion problems. Photo courtesy of Risa Pesapane. [Read more…]

Explore the Future of Rural Business

We’re excited here at Rural System about all the new possibilities for the future of rural business! The modern farmer is breaking the mold with higher education and new technology- not to mention our farmer 10.0 could be a lady.

farmer 1.0 vs 10.0

Here’s what you need to know about the future of rural business in 2014: [Read more…]

Everything is Related and Everything is Replicated

The founder of Rural System, reflecting on his experiences in Africa said Everything is Related when discussing the ripple effect that a singular event like an act of terrorism can have in an economy. Our human ecosystem, much like our environmental ecosystem, is linked by a complex web of interactions. Every “thing” has an effect on another “thing” somewhere in the system. Looking at the world through the eyes of an ecologist, this biological pattern is replicated in all aspects of life. Indeed it’s possible to draw valuable insights for non-biological fields from biological science. Perhaps the most recent compelling example is the comparison of global finance and primate social networks. As different as we are from animals, it’s clear that there are fundamental processes that remain the same. The world is one big, living organism.

World Travel

Traveling provides a unique perspective on land use and its associated challenges that aren’t comprehensible simply from reading. Observing the relationship between people and their surrounding environment provides context for our ideas and guides how we execute them.

[Read more…]