Prairie Described


Grasses are usually the most abundant plants in coastal prairies and grasslands. Rushes and sedges are grass-like plants that often grow in or adjacent to the seasonally wetter areas in coastal grasslands. Most often they are perennials.

The scientific names for the species are taken from the Jepson Manual of Vascular Plants of California, Second Edition (Baldwin et al. 2012).

Bromus carinatus

California brome inflorescence. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery

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bulletA Comparison of Grasses, Sedges, and Rushes



Bromus carinatus

Brownhead rush inflorescence. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery 2011.


A comparison of grasses, sedges, and rushes

grass FAmily (POACEAE)

Grasses have round stems and flat leaf blades. The stems, called culms, are usually hollow and jointed with solid nodes. The most conspicuous grasses are perennial bunch grasses. Bunch grasses form tufts, clumps, or tussocks by sending up new shoots called tillers. The tillers remain attached to the base of the grass and the plant gradually thickens. Because bunch grasses do not spread out like rhizomatous grasses, they provide an open structure to coastal prairie that enhances biodiversity: the spaces between bunches allow room for a diverse selection of forbs, mosses and other grasses to grow and provide habitat for feeding, nesting, and hiding birds and animals (Darris and Gonzalves 2008).

Sedge Family (Cyperaceae)

Sedges often have triangular stems. The female flowers of sedges are enclosed in a single sheath-like scale called a perigynia. Many sedge species spread through long rhizomes making them useful in erosion control of moister soils. The Sedge Family groups several related genera including Scirpus, Rhynchospora, Eleocharis, Cladium, Schoenoplectus & others, but the largest genus is the Carex with over 130 species growing in California, most of them native.

Rush Family (Juncaceae)

Most rushes have round stems and leaf blades. One exception discussed here is Juncus phaeocephalis, which has flat leaves and stems with overlapping bases much like an iris. However, both flat and round leaves usually have septa, characteristic partitions inside the leaves of most Juncus species, which can be seen when held up to the light or felt by sliding your fingers down the leaf.

The following table provides a comparison of general characteristics of grasses, sedges and rushes. Exceptions are listed under species discussed below.

Group (Family: Genera) Stem (culm) Leaf Blade Leaf sheath Fruit
Grasses (Poaceae: many)
round, (usually) hollow; jointed with solid nodes
caryopsis (grain)
Sedges (Cyperaceae: Carex & others)
triangular, solid
nutlet or achene enclosed in perigynium
Rushes (Juncaceae: Juncus, Luzula & others)
round, solid (pithy)
round (usually) with septa (structural partitions)
open or closed
seeds enclosed in capsule

california oat grass specimen

California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) plant with roots at the Oakland Museum. Photo courtesy of Mark Stromberg.

California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) - Native

Grass Family (Poaceae)

Danthonia californica is a native bunchgrass that forms scattered dense clumps in many coastal prairies.

California Oatgrass:

bulletIs the most abundant species in some coastal prairies (Sawyer, et al. 2009),

bulletIs one of the most important native grass species in coastal terrace grasslands with rich soils (Ford and Hayes 2007),

bulletOccurs in moist lowland prairies, drier upland prairies and open woodlands (Darris and Gonzalves 2008).

bulletIs widespread in western North America and Chile (Utah State University c2001-2002).

California Oatgrass Ecology

bulletDrought: California oatgrass roots can penetrate 3-4 feet into the soil (Amme 2003a).


  • California oatgrass is a highly nutritious and desirable forage in coastal areas. Some ranchers have called this species “cotton candy grass” due to cattle’s fondness for grazing it (Lynn Logier pers. comm.).
  • Grazing or browsing animals may overlook the flowering culms (stems) which often lean obliquely or horizontally from the plant. Instead, leaves without flowers or neighboring taller species are more likely to be eaten.
  • Seed production in the stems is probably an effective means for these plants to conceal their progeny from grazers (Dobrenz and Beetle 1966).
  • Moderately grazed plants tend to produce more hidden seeds in their culms (flowering stems) than those that are not grazed (Dobrenz and Beetle 1966).
  • Moderate grazing during the early growing season can stimulate the formation of new stems called tillers (Darris and Gonzalves 2008).
  • In heavily grazed or mowed areas, California oatgrass forms a low mat-like sod (Amme 2003a; Darris and Gonzalves 2008) which is difficult to graze or penetrate. Sod formation occurs when grazing removes or destroys parts of the plant breaking it into isolated tufts (Crampton 1974). The tufts produce new tillers that coalesce into a sod composed of diminutive plants.

bulletLife History:

  • California oatgrass is recognized as a long-lived perennial by most sources, but just how long, we don’t know.
  • oat grass panicle diagram

    California oatgrass panicle and flower (enlarged). Drawing courtesy of USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / Hitchcock, A.S. (rev. A. Chase). 1950. Manual of the grasses of the United States. USDA Miscellaneous Publication No. 200. Washington

  • This species is unusual among perennial grasses in the low number of seeds produced (56-69 seeds per flower stem compared to 2,000 per stem for Deschampsia cespitosa (Dobrenz and Beetle 1966) and the extended longevity of the seeds (Amme 2003a).
  • Oatgrass uses two strategies of seed production to enhance opportunities for successful reproduction:

    1. Similar to most other grasses, seeds are produced in the florets with well-developed flower parts at the top of stems (called culms). The flowers are fertilized by the wind-blown pollen of other individuals.  

    2. Unlike many other grasses, California oat grasses develop hidden flowers completely enclosed inside the stems that do not open but self-fertilize (Dobrenz and Beetle 1966). Up to 8 seeds can be produced at each node in the stem and the seeds differ from those in the florets in that they are larger and more numerous (25-36 stem seeds, 21-33 floret seeds) (Dobrenz and Beetle 1966, Hurteau 2009). In addition, some of these hidden flowers lack a developed lemma and palea (Dobrenz and Beetle1966) including the hygroscopic awn, which aids in seed dispersal and moisture acquisition (see next point).

  • Seed dispersal varies depending on the type of seed. Seeds that mature in the floret have well-developed “hygroscopic” awns (see image) that readily take up moisture (Maslovat 2002).  The awn allows the seed to disperse across the soil surface as it expands and contracts with alternately wet and dry conditions. In addition, the moisture absorbed by the awns provides moisture to the seed, aiding in germination (Peart 1979).
  • Seeds that mature in the stem rely on dispersal of stem parts. In July or August, after the seeds fall from the florets, the basal node of the culm breaks apart and the entire culm with its seeds at multiple nodes falls to the ground. This dehiscence is found in other grasses as well, but California oat grass tends to break more easily at the basal node than at other node locations along the stem (Dobrenz and Beetle 1996). The dry stems with enclosed seed may wrap around the feet or limbs of passing animals (Hurteau 2009 citing Darris pers. obs., Sampson, et al. 1951).

Fun Facts About California Oat Grass

bulletCalifornia oatgrass is NOT closely related to European wild oats which are introduced annual grasses in the same genus as cultivated oat (Avena sativa).

snall yellow galls of nematodes on California Oatgrass leaf

Nematode leaf galls (Cynipanguina danthoniaea ) on California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) near Fort Ross , Sonoma County California. 1 July 2010. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery.

bulletDanthonia californica is the host-plant for a nematode (Cynipanguina danthoniaea) first discovered on plants at Shell Beach in Sonoma County (Maggenti, et al. 1973). Nematodes are tiny worm-like creatures that feed on plants. There is no information on whether this nematode is detrimental to the health of the plants.

bulletCalifornia oatgrass nematodes observed at Shell Beach formed galls found singly or in groups of up to 50 galls.

bulletThe color of the galls ranges from light green to straw yellow depending on developmental stage.

bulletEach gall can house up to 19 adult nematodes; apparently it is unusual for adult nematodes of this genus to occupy the galls, as juvenile stages occupy galls of other species.

bulletAdult nematodes can survive for two years inside the leaf galls.

Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) - NATIVE

patch of tufted hairgrass

Deschampsia cespitosa growing with Douglas' Iris at Sonoma Coast State Beach. 2010 May 10. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery.

Grass Family (Poaceae)

Deschampsia cespitosa is a densely clumped native bunchgrass with narrow leaf blades that can reach 3 feet in height.

Tufted Hairgrass:

bulletCan be dominant or co-dominant in coastal bluff and terrace prairies (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletAlso occurs in other California grassland types, in both salt and freshwater marshes, and can be dominant in some montane and alpine meadows of the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ranges (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletIs widely distributed in temperate and cold climate regions in North America, Eurasia, New Zealand, Tasmania, southeast Australia, and several countries in South America, where it may be introduced (Mark and Dickinson 2001).

Tufted Hairgrass Ecology


  • With sufficient moisture, often from fog, tufted hairgrass can remain green  year-round. (Sampson 1924).
  • Dead leaves protect the immature green leaves during the winter (Keeler-Wolf, et al. 2007).


  • Dead leaves protect the growing parts of the plant from grazing animals who tend to avoid dry grass (Mingo and Oesterheld 2009).
  • Overgrazing will destroy tufted hairgrass plants (Sampson 1924).
  • However, undergrazing is harmful as well: coyotebrush (Baccharis pilularis) and velvetgrass (Holcus lanatus) has replaced tufted hairgrass grassland in ungrazed roadsides in Point Reyes National Seashore, Marin County (Edwards 1995).

bulletFire: Dead leaves protect the growing buds from fire (Walsh 1995a).

bulletLife History: A single plant can live 30 years or more and produce over 500,000 seeds in one season (an average of 2,000 seeds per panicle) (Davy 1980).

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Tufted hairgrass is one of two coastal prairie grasses that are host plants for the umber skipper (Poanes melane, W.H. Edwards, 1869; Hesperiidae). The caterpillars feed on the leaves and live in the shelter of rolled or tied leaves. The adults survive on flower nectar (presumably from wildflowers) California brome (Bromus carinatus) is the other host plant. (Opler, et al. 2010).
  • Tufted hairgrass is one of the most important range forage species in the western United States (Crampton 1974). Native tufted hairgrass meadows in Colorado and Utah are sometimes cut  for hay  (Walsh 1995a).

Fun Facts About Tufted Hairgrass

bulletThere are about 18 subspecies in Europe and Asia, six in North America, and two in South America (Chiapella and Zuloaga 2010).

Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) - NATIVE

big bunch of pacific reedgrass

Pacific reed grass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis) along Kortum Trail, California State Parks, Russian River District. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery 2010.

Grass Family (Poaceae)

Pacific reedgrass is a perennial bunchgrass that grows in dense tufts forming large distinctive tussocks that can reach almost 5 feet in height. The leaf blades are wide and rough-to-the-touch.

Pacific Reedgrass:

bulletCan be dominant or co-dominant on coastal terraces and bluffs (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletIs found only in the coastal zone in coastal prairie and freshwater marshes (usually in wetlands, occasionally in non wetlands)(Calflora 2011).

bulletIs  distributed from easternmost Siberia south to the Aleutian Islands and along the Pacific coast to San Luis Obispo County (Sawyer, et al. 2009; Utah State University c2001-2002).

Pacific Reedgrass Ecology

bulletFire: Plants do not readily burn (low flammability) and Pacific reedgrass resprouts vigorously from underground buds that can survive the heat of the fire (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletSpecies Interactions: Coyote brush (Baccharis pilularis)can out-compete pacific reedgrass for light except on exposed coastal bluffs and steep slopes where the shrubs remain shorter than pacific reedgrass tussocks (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletSpecies Interactions: Pacific reedgrass can hinder the ability of common velvet grass (Holcus lanatus) to invade coastal prairie, presumably because it shades out seedlings (Thomsen and D'Antonio 2007).

Fun Facts About Pacific Reedgrass

bulletThere are two additional native Calamagrostis species that can be foun in coastal prairie in Sonoma and Marin Counties:

  • Bolander's reed grass (C. bolanderi) is distributed from Sonoma County to Humboldt County—Sonoma County records from Consortium of California Herbaria list Sea Ranch, Stewart’s Point at Sonoma Coast State Park, Joy Road, and Del Mar (University of California 2009).
  • Thurber's reed grass (C. stricta subsp. inexpansa) is distributed in wet prairies in Sonoma County (Bodega Head) and in Marin County at Point Reyes National Seashore (near the radio station and near Bull Point Trail) and at Mount Tamalpais (University of California 2009; Howell et al. 2007). Curiously, this species is found more often in the northern and eastern High Sierra Nevada mountains (Howell et al. 2007).

Purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra, formerly Nassella pulchra) - NATIVE

feathery seeds of pubple needlegrass

Purple needlgrass inflorescence. Photo courtesy of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, National Park Service http://www.researchlearning

Grass Family (Poaceae)

Purple Needlegrass:

bulletIs one of the most widespread native perennial bunchgrass in California.

bulletIs usually a subdominant species in coastal prairie in Sonoma and Marin Counties, occurring mainly on south-facing slopes in northern Sonoma County, but becomes a dominant grass in coastal terrace prairies south of Morro Bay (Bartolome, et al. 2007).

bulletOccurs in other California grasslands, shrub and woodlands.

bulletIs restricted to California.

Purple Needlegrass Ecology

bulletDrought: Roots can extend 20 feet into the ground (Stromberg and Kephart n.d.).

bulletLife History:

  • Long-lived perennial—one of the most long-lived grasses, some plants may be 100-200 years old (Hamilton, et al. 2002).
  • Self-sowing mechanism—twisting awns and pointed seeds work their way into the ground (Bartolome 1981).

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • Purple needlegrass was an important food source for California Native Americans,
  • Provides food for over 330 wildlife species,
  • And continues to be an important food source for cattle (State of California 2004).

Fun Facts About Purple Needlegrass

bulletPurple needlegrass is the official California State Grass (State of California 2004).

bulletPurple needlegrass has the potential to quickly colonize disturbed sites because its seeds germinate readily, seedlings grow vigorously, and established seedlings can produce seeds in as little as two years (Bartolome 1981).  

bulletThere are five Nassella species growing in California, three native and two introduced (Amme 2003b). Purple needlegrass (N. pulchra), nodding needlegrass (N. cernua) and foothill needlegrass (N. lepida) are native to California and northern Baja California. The introduced species are Nassella manicata (previously misidentified as N. formicarum), native to Chile, and Mexican feather grass (N. tenuissima), native to Texas, New Mexico, northern Mexico, and Argentina (Amme 2003b).

bulletThe authors of the Second Edition of the Jepson Manual have reappointed purple needlegrass from the genus Nassella back to its former genus Stipa (University of California 2009).

Red fescue (Festuca rubra) - NATIVE

Grass Family (Poaceae)

The native red fescue is a loosely to densly tufted grass, sometimes with very short rhizomes. It can be identified by its culms (grass stems) which are usually red or purplish at the base.

Red Fescue:

bulletCan be dominant or co-dominant on coastal terraces, bluffs, toe slopes and headlands (Sawyer, et al. 2009), though it rarely forms dense stands (Crampton 1974).

bulletOccurs in many plant communities, including wetland and riparian areas (equally likely to occur in wetlands or non-wetlands) (Calflora 2011).

bulletHas a wide distribution in the cooler parts of the northern hemisphere. On the California Coast, its range extends from the northern California to Monterey (Hitchcock 1971:72-74).

Red Fescue Ecology

red fescue bunches

Red fescue at Mount Burdell Open Space Preserve in Marin County. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery 2010.

bulletFire: Plants can survive fire by resprouting  (Walsh 1995b).

bulletGrazing: Plants can withstand close grazing (presumably because moderate grazing stimulates development of rhizomes or tillers) but decrease when over or improperly grazed (Walsh 1995b).

bulletLIfe History: A single individual plant reproducing through tillers (and possibly through short rhizomes) can spread to form a large, long-lived  single individual.  The largest recorded red fescue clone, growing in Scotland, was 220 meters  in diameter and estimated by its rate of growth to be over 1,000 years old  (Cook 1983; Harberd 1961; Walsh 1995b).

Fun Facts About Red Fescue

bulletThere are two forms in California that are sometimes described as subspecies: ssp. rubra and ssp. densiucula (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletThe native red fescue in northern California’s coastal prairies grows more during winter than any other of the world’s varieties of red fescue (Amme 2003a).

bulletNon-native forms are known in the horticultural trade as a sod-forming rhizomatous grass, and are sold as a forage and as a turf grass. Some horticultural forms are naturalized in California (Hickman 1993).

bulletSome sources distinguish between 10-12 subspecies of red fescue growing in North America, but their separation is complicated because natives can hybridize with introduced varieties from Eurasia as well as with the hundreds of varieties developed and widely distributed as turf and sod cultivars (University of California 2009; Utah State University c2001-2002).

Blue wild rye (Elymus glaucus) - NATIVE

close up of a blue wild rye flower spike

Blue wild rye flower spike. Photo Copyright © 2006 Laura Ann Eliassen.

Grass Family (Poaceae)

Blue wild rye is a tall perennial bunchgrass that grows in tufts composed of only a few stems per plant (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

Blue Wild Rye:

bulletIs common in coastal prairie in Sonoma and Marin Counties where it rarely forms large stands, but is instead found scattered about, waving its long slender segmented flower spikes above the surrounding shorter vegetation.

bulletIs part of California oatgrass (Danthonia californica) coastal prairie at Ocean Song in Sonoma County (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletIs the dominant grass in coastal prairie at on Bodega Head (Michelle Cooper, Reserve Steward, Bodega Marine Reserve, pers. comm.).

bulletIs regularly distributed throughout portions of tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) coastal prairie at Point Reyes National Seashore (Personal observation, D.Immel-Jeffery 2011).

bulletIs restricted to Western North America from Baja California to Canada and east to the Great Plains (Johnson 1999).

bulletOccurs in many plant communities but is most abundant in moist woodlands especially in the central Rocky Mountains (Johnson 1999).

Blue Wild Rye Ecology

bulletDrought: deeply rooted, and fairly drought-tolerant (Crampton 1974; Sampson 1924). 


  • Burns quickly with little downward transfer of heat (Stannard 2010).
  • Resprouts readily from buds on branches and culms (Sawyer, et al. 2009).


  • Mature stands may benefit from occasional grazing to stimulate spread (presumably from stimulating growth of stolons and/or rhizomes) (Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve 2001).
  • The strong root system can withstand moderately high trampling by livestock (Sampson 1924).
  • Will not survive if heavily grazed (Stannard 2010).

bulletLife History:

  • Short-lived perennial bunchgrass, sometimes with short rhizomes.
  • Seedlings develop deep roots, are vigorous and fast growing and often used in restoration projects (Johnson 1999; Sampson 1924).

bulletSpecies Interactions: 

  • Seedlings and adults can compete well with exotic perennial grasses. Adult plants can even exclude exotic annual grasses (Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve 2001).
  • Kashaya Pomo food: Wild rye (Elymus sp.) grains were parched in baskets with hot coals and ground into a very fine dried seed meal (pinole) that was either eaten dry or pressed into cakes (Goodrich, et al. 1980).  Wild rye pinole was used either by itself or mixed with other grains and seeds to produce different flavors.

  • A wild rye harvest by Kashaya Pomo at Fort Ross as describe by Otto von Kotzebue, Post Captain in the Russian Imperial Navy: “For the winter they lay up a provision of acorns and wild rye: the latter grows here very abundantly. When it is ripe, they burn the straw away from it, and thus roast the corn, which is then raked together, mixed with acorns, and eaten without any farther preparation” (Kotzebue 1830).

Fun Facts About Blue Wild Rye

bulletLeaf color changes from green to blue-green with aging.

bulletAll but one Elymus species in California are perennial, most are native. The single annual is the introduced noxious weed Medusa head (Elymus caput-medusae, formerly Taeniatherum caput-medusae) (University of California 2009) .

California brome (Bromus carinatus var carinatus) - NATIVE

Grass Family (Poaceae)

California brome is a short-lived perennial.

California brome seedheads suspended over a grassy background

California Brome along Ridgecrest Trail, California State Parks, Marin. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery 2010.

California Brome:

bulletIs a common component of coastal prairie (Ford and Hayes 2007; Tollefson 2006).

bulletAlso occurs in chaparral, plains and open woodlands (University of California 2009).

bulletIs restricted to western North America and distributed widely from British Columbia to Baja California.

California Brome Ecology


  • California brome is fairly resistant to moderate grazing because of its deep, fibrous root system (Tollefson 2006).
  • California brome is a nutritious wild pasture forage grass (Hitchcock 1971:3).

bulletFire: plants can re-sprout after fire, depending on the severity of the fire (Tollefson 2006).

bulletLife History:

  • Rapid-growing, sometimes short-lived perennial with an average lifespan of 3-10 years (Tollefson 2006).
  • California brome produces abundant seeds which germinate readily; there is conflicting information on how long the seeds remain viable in the soil (Tollefson 2006).
  • California brome can exhibit either a prostrate or erect form. Prostrate forms are apparently a response to windy conditions near the ocean.

bulletSpecies Interactions:

  • California brome is one of two coastal prairie grasses that are host plants for the umber skipper (Poanes melane).Tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) is the other host. The caterpillars feed on the leaves and live in shelters of rolled or tied leaves. The adults survive on flower nectar, presumably from wildflowers (Opler, et al. 2010).
  • Grizzly bears are known to forage on California brome in Montana (Tollefson 2006).

Fun Facts About California Brome

bulletCalifornia brome is often used for erosion control and restoration projects because of its rapid establishment and extensive root system (Darris 2007).

bulletBromus carinatus is separated into two varieties, “California brome” and “mountain brome” (B. carinatus var. marginatus), by some authors, including those in the second edition of the Jepson Manual of Higher Plants in California (University of California 2009).

Meadow barley, California barley (Hordeum brachyantherum) - native

compact seedhead of Meadow barley flower spike

Meadow barley flower spike. Photo courtesy of Stephen Laymon, Bureau of Land Management.

Grass Family (Poaceae)

Meadow and California Barley

bulletThe only native barley found in abundance in coastal prairie where it can be a dominant or co-dominant species (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

bulletOccurs in many plant communities, usually in wetlands, but occasionally in non-wetlands (Calflora 2011)

Meadow Barley Ecology

bulletDrought: Meadow barley is not as drought tolerant as many other grasses. It occurs at many elevations, but usually in wetter areas. Meadow barley is found in the moister coastal prairies (Ford & Hayes 2007:198).

bulletFire: Meadow barley resprouts readily from underground buds and rhizomes (Sawyer, et al. 2009)


  • Tolerates occassional mowing and moderate grazing (Elkhorn Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve 2001).
  • Because it matures early at high and low elevations, it is considered of limited value as forage for livestock (Crampton 1974:81).

bulletLife History:

  • Short- to medium-lived perennial bunch grass that is often used for restoration sites.
  • Like California brome, California barley takes on a prostrate form when growing on windswept bluffs (Howell, et al. 2007).
  • Meadow barley can tolerate serpentine soils (Utah State University c2001-2002).

Fun Facts About Meadow Barley

bulletMeadow barley is one of five native of barley species found in California (University of California 2009).

bulletThere are two subspecies (Howell, et al. 2007; Utah State University c2001-2002):

  • Meadow barley (H. brachyantherum ssp. brachyantherum)—is widely distributed and native to western North America.
  • California barley (H. brachyantherum ssp. californicum)—is restricted to California at elevations below 500 meters (1640 feet).

bulletMeadow barley is sometimes sown as a cover crop in California vineyards (Darris 2008) and is often used at restoration sites.


Dense sedge (Carex densa) - NATIVE

Sedge Family (Cyperaceae)

Dense sedge grows in densely clumped tufts with short rootstocks.

carex densa flowerhead cardled in someone's hand

Inflorescence and cross-wrinkled leaf sheath of dense sedge (Carex densa). Photo courtesy of Neal Kramer, Copyright © 2008.

Dense Sedge:

bulletIs distributed in California and Oregon with its northernmost distribution in southern Washington where it is listed by Washington State as a threatened species (Washington State Department of Natural Resources 2009).

bulletOccurs in seasonally wet meadows and slopes in coastal prairies.

bulletCan be dominant or co-dominant in marshy areas where it is interspersed with other native plants found in coastal prairies including California buttercup (Ranunculus californicus) and the native shrub coyotebrush (Baccharis pilularis). Some non-natives that co-occur are cutleaf geranium (Geranium dissectum), wild oats (Avena barbata), and common velvetgrass (Holcus lanatus) (Keeler-Wolf, et al. 2007).

bulletAlso occurs in northern coastal scrub, valley grassland and in some woodland communities in western North America (Cal Flora 2011).

Dense Sedge Ecology

bulletSpecies Interactions: Maria Copa, Coast Miwok, identified Carex densa as a plant whose roots were used for basketry (Kelly 1996). Maria Copa reports that the “roots” (of the specimen that Isabel Kelly collected) were gathered about September, split, stored and later cleaned for use in baskets (Kelly 1996). It is probable that the specimen collected by Isabel Kelly was misidentified (either by Kelly or Copa) as dense sedge does not have the long rhizomes (“roots”) generally used in basketry, but is cespitose or bunch-like with only short roots.

Coast sedge (Carex obnupta) - NATIVE

Sedge Family (Cyperaceae)

Coast sedge is a rhizomatous (growing horizontal underground stems) perennial that forms large dense beds of tussocks that can reach almost 5 feet high. The flat leaves are creased into a W-shape. The long inflorescences often droop. An easy way to remember the species name is by thinking “ob-droop-ta” (Shelly Benson, CPEFS Botanist, pers. comm.).

Coast Sedge:

bulletIs native to California and is distributed in western North America from California’s Central Coast to British Columbia.

bulletGrows in wetter areas of coastal prairies.

bulletIs often associated with Pacific reedgrass (Calamagrostis nutkaensis).

carex obnupta growing in a dense patch showing the drooping fruits

Coast sedge (Carex obnupta) with drooping inflorescence at Sonoma Coast State Beach 2010 May 10. Photo by D. Immel-Jeffery.

Coast Sedge Ecology

bullet Species Interactions:

  • The shiny dark brown fruits (perigynia enclosing achenes) are eaten by many grassland birds and animals.
  • The leaves were gathered and used for both the wrapping and twining in “grass” baskets that are still made by Canadian Indians on Vancouver Island (Stevens and Hoag 2006).
  • The leaves are so sharp it is reported that Hesquiat men in British Columbia used them for shaving (Moerman 2003).

Fun Facts About Coast Sedge

bulletCoast sedge is also known as slough sedge. The word slough was used in the past in a derogatory sense to describe muddy and wet regions that required improved drainage and implied a degraded condition. We now use words like “wetland” more often to describe the wetter marshy areas formerly known as sloughs.

bulletThe plants are used for erosion control and streambank stabilization (Stevens and Hoag 2006).


Toad rush (Juncus bufonius) - NATIVE

Rush Family (Juncaceae)

juncus bufonius occurring as small isolated individual

Toad rush (Juncus bufonius). Photograph by Kristian Peters. Wikimedia Commons.

Toad rush is a small native rush and one of the few annual Juncus species.

Toad Rush:

bullet Is common in low wet places and dry pools in coastal prairies in Sonoma and Marin Counties, and is distributed world-wide.

Toad Rush Ecology

bullet Life History: Often found in disturbed areas, toad rush is considered a weed in gardens and irrigated fields (Best, et al. 1996).

Fun Facts About Toad Rush

bullet The taxonomy of the world’s toad rushes is unclear and needing of further study. There are three varieties listed in the Jepson e-Flora on-line: var. bufonius, and var. occidentalis are native and var.congestus, native to northern Europe, is naturalized in California (University of California 2009).

Spreading Rush, California gray rush (Juncus patens) - NATIVE

Rush Family (Juncaceae)

juncus patens flowers with the grey green foliage in the background

Juncus patens at Golden Gate National Recreation Area in Marin County. Photo courtesy of Robert Steers © 2010 National Park Service.

Spreading rush is a native perennial that can be distinguished by its characteristic blue-gray hue. The fresh stems are bluish gray-green and have distinct grooves with greater than 14 ridges per side (Hickman 1993; University of California 2009).

Spreading Rush:

bullet Is distributed from northwestern Mexico to southern Washington (Flora of North America Editorial Committee eds. 1993+).

bulletCan be dominant in wetter areas within coastal prairie and is often associated with coast sedge (Carex obnupta), brown-head rush (Juncus phaeocephalus), toad rush (Juncus bufonius), Italian rye grass (Festuca perennis, formerly Lolium perenne), and bull clover (Trifolium wormskioldii).

Spreading Rush Ecology

bulletLife History: Spreads by short rhizomes to form dense gray-green clumps.

bulletSpecies Interactions: Tom Smith, Bodega Coast Miwok, told Isabel Kelly that Juncus patens was sometimes used "root-end down" for house covering, although it leaked (Kelly 1996). The specimen that Smith and Kelly examined was gathered along the road from Bodega Bay to Duncan’s Point on December 19, 1931.

Brownhead rush (Juncus phaeocephalus) - NATIVE

Rush Family (Juncaceae)

close up of juncus phaeocephalus flowers

Brownhead rush flowers at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo courtesy of Robert Steer © 2010 National Park Service.

Juncus phaeocephalus is a short stature rush to 1 ½ feet high that can forms dense stands by sending out creeping rhizomes. Brownhead rush looks like a sedge or an iris because it has flattened instead of round stems and leaves.  It can be easily distinguished from a sedge or an iris by running your closed thumb and forefinger down one of the flattened leaves.  You will feel regular internal ribs formed by structural partitions or crosswalls within the leaf called the transverse septa that is characteristic of many Juncus species. 

Brownhead Rush:

bullet Is native to California and is distributed in meadows and wetland borders in coastal regions from Los Angeles County to Oregon. 

bulletIs a rhizomatous perennial that will grow on serpentine soils.

bulletCo-occurs in coastal prairies and with meadow barley (Hordeum brachyantherum), tufted hairgrass (Deschampsia cespitosa) California buttercup (Ranunculus

californicus), and non-natives including common velvetgrass (Holcus lanatus), and Italian ryegrass (Festuca perennis, formerly Lolium perenne) (Sawyer, et al. 2009).

Fun Fact About Brownhead Rush

bulletBrownhead rush gets both its common and scientific name because it has dense heads of tiny dark dusky- or reddish-brown flowers.