Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Bulrushes © Dave Spier

In common usage, the term “bulrush” is applied to a wide variety of generally-aquatic plants related to grasses. In a stricter botanical sense, it is usually reserved for members of the genus Scirpus in the sedge family (Cyperaceae). Grasses are a separate family (Graminae) and rushes are a third (Juncaceae). All together the three plant families comprise the order Poales.

Grasses are distinguished by having hollow stems with “joints” [bulges] where the narrow leaves attach. The flowers are inconspicuous because the plants are wind-pollinated. Sedges, in contrast, have solid stems and many, but not all, are triangular in cross-section. This is the origin of the phrase “sedges have edges.” There are no joints and the leaves may be small or missing. Sedges as a group tolerate wetter and colder growing conditions than grasses. Their ranges extend farther north and they take over where grasses leave off.

One of the common bulrushes in the Montezuma Wetlands Complex is Soft-stem Bulrush, a.k.a. Great Bulrush (Scirpus validus). Its stem is round and spongy, there are no apparent leaves and the seed carriers are brown, cone-shaped nutlets growing in a cluster on the side of the stem below the tip.

This species grows four feet out of the water, and sometimes higher, and bulrush colonies often intermingle with cattails. There’s an accessible patch of bulrushes growing with the cattails around the edge of the two education ponds near the Montezuma Audubon Center (MAC) on Rt. 89 north of Savannah, NY. They are in a low area in the field west of the parking lot and south of the building. The ponds were enlarged and deepened for use by school groups and there’s a footbridge between the two. A large variety of emergent wetland plants including cattails, sedges, arrowheads, bur-reed, Lobelia and other wildflowers grow there. After it rains, high water levels can make the foot bridge across the neck of the pond unstable, so check the stability first or go around the mowed path that circles the main pond.

At least once a month, I lead a general nature hike called “Wednesday Naturalists” at the MAC. We often go past the education pond and take a look at the wetland plants plus the dragonflies that patrol the air and the frogs that hide among the plants.

The MAC also has a monthly series of early morning bird walks and tours. Contact me at for details, or write to

September features the annual Montezuma Muckrace, a competitive 24-hour birding event to raise funds for projects around the wetlands complex. The 2008 competition raised $12,000, part of which was used to pay for the education pond expansion at MAC. Proceeds from 2009 paid for a Purple Martin house near the MAC and reforestation of 57 acres on the Federal wildlife refuge. For more information, go to

No comments: