Name. Once mistakenly called wire-grass, this plant is a true sedge. Sedges and grasses look similar but belong to different families. The wire part of the common name comes from the rigid construction of the leaves and stems, which are round in cross section and tough as wire. This feature gives them unusual strength to withstand wind and rain.
Appearance. The stems of wire-sedge can grow nearly 4 feet tall. The leaves originate near the base of the stem and can be as long as or longer than the stem. One to three female spikes are spaced a few inches apart on the upper stem. Each female spike is 1 to 2 inches long and produces 15 to 50 flowers, each with one seed. Enclosed in a papery pouch called a perigynium, the seed matures in midsummer. The plant has underground stems called rhizomes, which grow horizontally to a length of about 30 inches. The rhizomes produce new plants at their tips—the key to the success of wire-sedges.
Habitat and Range. Wire-sedge is common in acidic wetlands and lakeshores across most of central and northern Minnesota. In ideal habitat, such as the large patterned peatlands of northwestern Minnesota, it can become a dominant species, occurring almost to the exclusion of all other species. Wire-sedge is found across northern portions of North America, Europe, and Asia.
History and Status. At the time Minnesota became a state, wire-sedge was abundant in shallow wetlands on the broad, flat landscape of the Anoka Sandplain. One stand of wire-sedge in Anoka County covered more than 10,000 acres. Historical accounts described it as "a vast and luxurious growth of native wire-grass." In the 1890s the land was purchased by the American Grass Twine Co., later the Crex Carpet Co. The name "Crex" was derived from the sedge name Carex.
This marked the beginning of a new industry in Minnesota. Harvesting crews of 400 to 500 men cut and baled the tough, wiry stems and leaves. The flat bales were shipped to the company factory in St. Paul. There, 700 to 800 workers wove the sedges into carpets and mats in the Japanese style popular at the time. History also mentions the 250 horses used to pull the wagons and harvesting machinery. They were fitted with broad, wooden "bog shoes" to prevent them from sinking into the mire.
Once the largest employer in St. Paul, the Crex Carpet Co. went into decline after World War I and filed for bankruptcy in 1935. Most of the "wire-grass meadow" reverted to the state and later became what is now Carlos Avery State Wildlife Management Area, where wire-sedge can still be found. Wire-sedge is generally common and not considered endangered or threatened.
Welby Smith, DNR botanist