Shoreline Plants  

Species: Scirpus acutus Muhl. ex Bigel., hardstem bulrush
Scirpus tabernaemontani Gmelin. Syn: Scirpus validus, softstem bulrush
Family: Cyperaceae

Hardstem and softstem bulrushes are tall, stout, perennial plants with round, olive green stems, drooping brown flower clusters near the stem tips, and a few inconspicuous leaves at the stem bases. Both species are commonly seen in marshes and along shorelines in water up to 1.5 m deep. Bulrushes (also called tules) are important food and habitat plants for waterfowl and aquatic mammals. These two species are very similar in appearance.

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Leaf: Located at stem bases; clasping sheaths with no or small leaf blades.

Stem: Olive green, round stems are 2-3 cm wide at the base and taper to 2-4 mm near the pointed tip. Hardstem: 1-4 meters tall, fresh plants not easily crushed with fingers. Softstem: up to 3 m tall, fresh plants more easily crushed with fingers.

Flower: Tiny, lack petals. Each concealed by spirally arranged overlapping scales forming flower spikelets clustered at the stem tips. Hardstem:1-8 brownish-gray spikelets per cluster, though often all solitary, about 5-15 mm long; scales to 4 mm long, awns on the scales 0.5-2 mm. Softstem 1-3 reddish-brown spikelets per cluster, about 4-13 mm long; scales to 3 mm long, awns on the scales < 1mm.

Fruit: Tiny seed-like achenes, 1.5-2.5 mm long, usually completely hidden by scales.

Root: Horizontal underground rhizomes from which roots and multiple stems arise.

Propagation: Seeds, rhizomes.

Importance of plant: Native Americans used roots, pollen, and flowering spikes as food. Stems were used to construct baskets, mats, temporary shelters, and other household items. Provides food, cover, and nesting habitat for waterfowl and other birds. Currently used for bank stabilization and to treat contaminated water.

Distribution: Hardstem: temperate North America. Softstem: nearly worldwide.

Habitat: Marshes and shorelines to 1.5 m deep. Tolerates alkaline conditions; hardstem bulrush is more tolerant of brackish water.

May be confused with: Native American Use Icon Each other. Detailed examination of the flower clusters is required to distinguish them. They are often difficult to distinguish because they can form hybrids. Some botanists combine them into one species called Scirpus lacustris.

Photographs:  Scipus acutis, Scirpus acutis seed head

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