Handsome Sedge

Carex formosa Dewey

Carex formosa line drawing
Britton, N.L., and A. Brown (1913); downloaded from USDA-Plants Database.

Monocotyledoneae (Monocots)
Cyperaceae (Sedge Family)
State Protection
Listed as Threatened by New York State: likely to become Endangered in the foreseeable future. For animals, taking, importation, transportation, or possession is prohibited, except under license or permit. For plants, removal or damage without the consent of the landowner is prohibited.
Federal Protection
Not Listed
State Conservation Status Rank
Imperiled in New York - Very vulnerable to disappearing from New York due to rarity or other factors; typically 6 to 20 populations or locations in New York, very few individuals, very restricted range, few remaining acres (or miles of stream), and/or steep declines.
Global Conservation Status Rank
Apparently Secure globally - Uncommon in the world but not rare; usually widespread, but may be rare in some parts of its range; possibly some cause for long-term concern due to declines or other factors.


Did you know?

The specific epithet formosa means finely formed, handsome, and beautiful (Stearns 2004). While a very beautiful plant, at least to those that enjoy sedges, this plant is perhaps no more handsome than many of its closest relatives. It must be its charisma that brings out its true beauty.

State Ranking Justification

There are twelve known populations and at least 20 additional historical locations. Only three populations have more than 100 stems. There is some speculation that this sedge is overlooked, but it also has a very limited habitat and is distinct to those familiar with sedges. More survey work is needed at the various historical sites, as well as other areas with promising habitat.

Short-term Trends

Of the 11 extant sites known about 8 were first documented within the past 20 years. These populations were probably overlooked in the past because this species is similar to other ones, the window for identification is small, and Carex species are often overlooked. One known site has recently been impacted by road construction but the full extent of this impact is unknown. Overall, there is no clear short term trends for this species.

Long-term Trends

Two historical populations are believed to have been extirpated due to housing development and agricultural practices. There are about an additional 15 populations which are only known from over 50 years ago. It is unknown if these populations are still extant. There are at least three populations which have been known for over 50 years. About 8 populations were recently documented but they may have been overlooked in the past. Overall the long term trends are unclear but may represent a slight decline.

Conservation and Management


Residential development poses a potential threat at a few sites. Exotic species are a potential threat at one site. Logging and changes in hydrology are potential threats although this species may not be negatively impacted by logging if invasive species are kept at bay.

Conservation Strategies and Management Practices

At least six extant populations have under 50 plants present. Regular monitoring of these populations over time will help to understand if these small populations indicate a downward trend, are merely a part of a fluctuating cycle, or represent an average population size for this species.

Research Needs

Surveys need to be conducted to all historical populations.



Carex formosa occurs in forests, forest edges, road sides, or less frequently in open meadows. The soils vary from fairly dry to mesic to occasionally seasonally or perennially wet although these wet soils are often actually adjacent to the populations. It occurs in areas where the bedrock is limestone or the soils are calcareous. A good place to look for this species is in limestone forests (New York Natural Heritage Program 2005). Mesic to dry deciduous forests and ravines, moist meadows, usually associated with calcareous soils (Waterway 2002). Dry calcareous woods (Rhoads and Block 2000). Moist soil in woods and thickets (Gleason and Cronquist 1991). Calcareous woods, thickets and meadows (Fernald 1970).

Associated Ecological Communities

  • Appalachian oak-hickory forest (guide)
    A hardwood forest that occurs on well-drained sites, usually on ridgetops, upper slopes, or south- and west-facing slopes. The soils are usually loams or sandy loams. This is a broadly defined forest community with several regional and edaphic variants. The dominant trees include red oak, white oak, and/or black oak. Mixed with the oaks, usually at lower densities, are pignut, shagbark, and/or sweet pignut hickory.
  • Calcareous cliff community (guide)
    A community that occurs on vertical exposures of resistant, calcareous bedrock (such as limestone or dolomite) or consolidated material; these cliffs often include ledges and small areas of talus.
  • Calcareous talus slope woodland (guide)
    An open or closed canopy community that occurs on talus slopes composed of calcareous bedrock such as limestone or dolomite. The soils are usually moist and loamy; there may be numerous rock outcrops.
  • Hemlock-northern hardwood forest (guide)
    A mixed forest that typically occurs on middle to lower slopes of ravines, on cool, mid-elevation slopes, and on moist, well-drained sites at the margins of swamps. Eastern hemlock is present and is often the most abundant tree in the forest.
  • Limestone woodland (guide)
    A woodland that occurs on shallow soils over limestone bedrock in non-alvar settings, and usually includes numerous rock outcrops. There are usually several codominant trees, although one species may become dominant in any one stand.
  • Maple-basswood rich mesic forest* (guide)
    A species rich hardwood forest that typically occurs on well-drained, moist soils of circumneutral pH. Rich herbs are predominant in the ground layer and are usually correlated with calcareous bedrock, although bedrock does not have to be exposed. The dominant trees are sugar maple, basswood, and white ash.
  • Successional northern hardwoods*
    A hardwood or mixed forest that occurs on sites that have been cleared or otherwise disturbed. Canopy trees are usually relatively young in age (25-50 years old) and signs of earlier forest disturbance are often evident. Characteristic trees and shrubs include any of the following: quaking aspen, big-tooth aspen, balsam poplar, paper birch, gray birch, pin cherry, black cherry, red maple, and white pine.
  • Successional old field*
    A meadow dominated by forbs and grasses that occurs on sites that have been cleared and plowed (for farming or development), and then abandoned or only occasionally mowed.
  • Successional southern hardwoods*
    A hardwood or mixed forest that occurs on sites that have been cleared or otherwise disturbed. Canopy trees are usually relatively young in age (25-50 years old) and signs of earlier forest disturbance are often evident. Characteristic trees and shrubs include any of the following: American elm, slippery elm, white ash, red maple, box elder, silver maple, sassafras, gray birch, hawthorn, eastern red cedar, and choke-cherry.

* probable association but not confirmed.

Associated Species

  • Acer rubrum
  • Acer saccharum (sugar maple)
  • Carex granularis (limestone-meadow sedge)
  • Carya ovata
  • Cornus amomum
  • Fraxinus americana (white ash)
  • Geranium robertianum (herb-Robert)
  • Ostrya virginiana (hop hornbeam, ironwood)
  • Rhamnus cathartica (European buckthorn)
  • Toxicodendron radicans
  • Ulmus americana (American elm)
  • Viburnum dentatum var. lucidum (smooth arrowwood)
  • Zanthoxylum americanum (prickly-ash)


New York State Distribution

Carex formosa occurs thinly scattered throughout a large part of the state. It is absent from Long Island, most of southeastern New York, the highlands of the Adirondack, and the southern tier. It is close to the southern boundary of its range in New York with one population known each for Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Global Distribution

Carex formosa occurs from Connecticut, western Massachusetes, Vermont, and southern Quebec west to southern Ontario, Wisconsin, and North Dakota south to northeastern Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey (Fernald 1970, Rothrock 1976, Snyder 1994, Sorrie and Somers 1999, Waterway 2002).

Identification Comments

General Description

Carex formosa is a densely tufted perennial grass like plant. Its leaves are strap like and 3-7 mm wide. Leaves at the base of the plants have maroon bases. Arising from the leaves at the bases of the plants are stalks that are 30-80 cm tall. Coming off the upper part of the stalks are secondary branches with elongated clusters of small inconspicuous flowers/fruits at the tips. The secondary branches and flower clusters arch. The flowers mature into small green fruits (perigynia) 3.5-5.0 mm long (Waterway 2002).

Identifying Characteristics

Carex formosa is a densely cespitose perennial. Basal leaf sheaths are maroon at their bases. Basal leaf blades are 3-7 mm wide and pilose abaxially. Culms are 30-80 cm tall. 3-5 spikes which arise singly at the nodes are present on the distal part of the culms. The lateral ones are on elongated peduncles which, with the spikes, arch or dangle at maturity. The lateral spikes are pistillate with 1-2 staminate flowers at their bases. The terminal spikes are gynecandrous. Perigynia are 3.5-5 mm long, have a short stipe, and abruptly narrow to a short (<0.5 mm long) beak (Waterway 2002).

Best Life Stage for Proper Identification

This species is difficult to distinguish from many similar species when vegetative. The best time for identification is when the plants are in immature to mature fruit but the fruits are not yet easily shedding.

Similar Species

Carex formosa is in section Hymenochlaenae affectionately known as the green dangly jobs which characterizes the dangling lateral spikes at maturity. There are numerous other species in this section that occur in New York including C. aestivalis, C. arctata, C. castanea, C. davisii, C. debilis, C. gracillima, C. prasina, C. sprengelii, C. sylvatica, and C. venusta. Many of these are superficially similar. Carex formosa differs from all of them in having lateral spikes with a few staminate flowers at the base vs. being entirely pistillate or in C. sylvatica and C. sprengelii being pistillate, staminate, or androgynous (staminate flowers above and pistillate below). Other differences include:

Carex gracillima (one of the most common members in much of NY) and C. aestivalis have beakless and shorter perigynia. In addition, C. gracillima has generally glabrous foliage.

Carex debilis and C. arctata (both fairly common in NY) as well as C. castanea mostly have staminate terminal spikes. In addition C. debilis and C. arctata have glabrous leaf blades.

Carex sylvatica and C. sprengelii have brown or non-maroon basal sheath bases as well as elongated beaks (2.0-3.0 mm and 1.7-4.0 mm long respectively.)

Carex davisii like C. formosa has a preference for calcareous soils but is more of a southern and midwestern species at the northern edge of its range in NY. It has larger perigynia 4.5-6.0 mm long and pistillate scales with elongated awns (2.5-3 mm long vs. less than 1.0 mm long for C. formosa).

Carex prasina is fairly distinct compared to C. formosa. It has spikes that are closer together, glabrous blue green foliage, and perigynia with two main veins but otherwise veinless (compared to 7-12 fine veins for C. formosa).

Carex venusta is confined to Long Island, in NY, where C. formosa is not known to occur. Carex venusta has glabrous leaf blades and larger perigynia (4.6-9 mm long) (Gleason and Cronquist 1991, Waterway 2002).

Best Time to See

This species is in immature to mature fruit from late May till mid-August or even later, especially in the northern parts of NY. Towards the end of this season the fruits are starting to shed easily and early on in this season the fruits are not ripe enough for easy identification. Therefore, surveys are most successful from early June until early July or a little later in northern New York.

  • Fruiting

The time of year you would expect to find Handsome Sedge fruiting in New York.

Handsome Sedge Images


Handsome Sedge
Carex formosa Dewey

  • Kingdom Plantae
    • Phylum Anthophyta
      • Class Monocotyledoneae (Monocots)
        • Order Cyperales
          • Family Cyperaceae (Sedge Family)

Additional Common Names

  • Sedge

Comments on the Classification

Carex formosa is in currently placed in section Hymenochlaenae but will probably be moved to another section once further studies are completed (Waterway 2002).

Additional Resources

Best Identification Reference

Waterway, M.J. 2002. Carex Linnaeus sect. Hymenochlaenae (Drejer) L.H. Bailey. Pages 461-475 in Flora of North America Editorial Committee (editors), Flora of North America, North of Mexico, Volume 23, Magnoliophyta: Commelinidae (in part): Cyperaceae. Oxford University Press, New York, NY, USA. 608pp + xxiv.

Other References

Fernald, M.L. 1970. Gray's manual of botany. 8th edition. 1970 printing with corrections by R.C. Rollins [of 1950 8th edition]. D. Van Nostrand Company, New York.

Gleason, Henry A. and A. Cronquist. 1991. Manual of Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York. 910 pp.

Holmgren, Noel. 1998. The Illustrated Companion to Gleason and Cronquist's Manual. Illustrations of the Vascular Plants of Northeastern United States and Adjacent Canada. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx, New York.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2010. Biotics database. New York Natural Heritage Program. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Albany, NY.

New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. New York Natural Heritage Program Databases. Albany, NY.

Reschke, Carol. 1990. Ecological communities of New York State. New York Natural Heritage Program, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Latham, NY. 96 pp. plus xi.

Rhoads, Ann F. and Timothy A. Block. 2000. The Plants of Pennsylvania, an Illustrated Manual. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, PA.

Rothrock, P.E. 1976. Carex formosa Dewey and other interesting carices in Pennsylvania. Castanea 41: 184-185.

Snyder, D.B. 1994. Additions, range extensions, reinstatements, and relocations in the New Jersey flora. Bartonia 58: 79-96.

Sorrie, B.A. and P. Somers. 1999. The vascular plants of Massachusetts: A county checklist. Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program, Westborough, MA.

Stearn, W. T. 2004. Botanical Latin. Fourth edition. Timber Press, Portland, Oregon. 546 pp +xiv.

Weldy, T. and D. Werier. 2010. New York flora atlas. [S.M. Landry, K.N. Campbell, and L.D. Mabe (original application development), Florida Center for Community Design and Research http://www.fccdr.usf.edu/. University of South Florida http://www.usf.edu/]. New York Flora Association http://newyork.plantatlas.usf.edu/, Albany, New York

Zaremba, Robert E. 1991. Corrections to phenology list of April 9, 1991.


About This Guide

Information for this guide was last updated on: November 4, 2022

Please cite this page as:
New York Natural Heritage Program. 2024. Online Conservation Guide for Carex formosa. Available from: https://guides.nynhp.org/handsome-sedge/. Accessed April 16, 2024.