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Botanists team up to compile field guide to Maine sedges

By Aislinn Sarnacki, BDN Staff

“SEDGES OF MAINE: A FIELD GUIDE TO CYPERACEAE,” by Matt Arsenault, Glen H. Mittelhauser, Don Cameron, Alison C. Dibble, Arthur Haines, Sally C. Rooney and Jill E. Weber, August 2013, University of Maine Press, 712 pages, paperback, $29.75.

“Sedges have edges. Rushes are round. Grasses have joints down to the ground,” recited Maine biologist Glen Mittelhauser during a recent interview.

A self-proclaimed “sedge geek,” Mittelhauser has long known how to differentiate between the three plant families — sedges, rushes and grasses — but the ditty has helped many a botany student over the years.

“Most people don’t even know what a sedge is,” said Mittelhauser.

Yet there’s something about the overlooked plant family that fascinates Mittelhauser, and he’s not alone. He and a group of fellow “sedge geeks” worked together for five years to compile the recently published “Sedges of Maine: A Field Guide to Cyperaceae,” a comprehensive field guide of one of the state’s largest plant families.

To create the 712-page guide, Mittelhauser and co-authors Matt Arsenault, Don Cameron, Alison Dibble, Arthur Haines, Sally Rooney and Jill Weber combined their knowledge, specimens, photographs and field experience of Maine’s 200-plus sedges.

“My hope is that it gets into the hands of folks with an interest in plants in Maine and it helps grow a passion for sedge identification, learning about natural habitats and the environment,” said Mittelhauser, who is also co-author for the field guide “Plants of Acadia National Park” and is the director of the Maine Natural History Observatory in Gouldsboro.

“They’re super common across the landscape. I can’t think of a habitat in Maine where you can go and not find a certain type of sedge,” said Arsenault, an ecologist at Stantec who became interested in sedges in 2002 while studying botany at the University of Maine in Orono.

Arsenault was on a botanical field trip in the Androscoggin River watershed when he stumbled across the rare cattail sedge (latin name, Carex typhina).

“I didn’t know what the heck I was looking at,” he said. “But apparently it hadn’t been found in the state in 65 years. Everyone was really excited. That was kind of the one that catapulted me into sedge interest.”

Much of Arsenault’s work on the field guide involved searching through hundreds of dried plant specimens in various herbariums throughout New England, including collections at Harvard and Cambridge, to verify records of plants found in Maine.

“Sedges of Maine,” a combination of simple keys and high-resolution photographs, was designed so that people can use it without having a great deal of knowledge about botany keys and terminology.

“One thing we added in this book, and I’m really glad we did, is similar species comparisons,” Mittelhauser said. “We talked about how to tell the two species apart.”

For people who are new to identifying plants, sedges are a good family to start with. Most sedges can be easily identified without using a magnifying glass, Mittelhauser said. And in Maine, they can be found just about anywhere.

And while out there on the field, remember the ditty (which Mittelhauser helps explain):

Sedges have edges. (“The stem cross section of most sedges is triangular — has three ridges on it.”)

Rushes are round. (“The stem is round in the cross section.”)

Grasses have joints all the way to the ground. (“The stem of grasses has little interruptions on it called nodes. You can feel these little bumps.”)

A book launch celebration, which is free and open to the public, is scheduled for 5-7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 6, at the Stantec offices at 30 Park Drive in Topsham. The book will be available for purchase at the event and is also for sale on the Maine Natural History Observatory website, www.mainenaturalhistory.org, and from the University of Maine Press, umaine.edu/umpress/.

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