You must have noticed white, fluffy fruiting heads, bobbing around in the wind on the countryside. This is cotton grass that is not a grass actually. These are sedges, or in simple words, a marsh plant. There are about 25 species of this plant that grow in soft and watery soil.
It is also known as cotton candy grass or bog grass. This plant loves to grow in bogs, conifer swamps and marshes. You can find it in Tundra, Arctic as well as Alaska. It is a common member of the tundra biome. Cotton candy grass belongs to the Cypraceae family. These plants are herbaceous perennial with slender leaves like grass. The habitat includes acidic wetlands and bogs. It grows all over the northern parts of Europe, Asia and North America. The stems are about 20 to 70 cm tall. You will find there are about 3 to 5 inflorescence's on the top of the stems. These fluffy heads are seed heads. The winds help dispersing the seeds in the seed heads. The plant flowers from December to January, with the seeds ripening in the months of January to February. It is a monoecious plant, that is, each flower produced is either male or female and found on the same plant.
Growing the Grass
The plant needs sandy, loamy or clay soil to grow. It is okay if the soil is not well-drained. The pH level of the soil should be less than 6, that is, acidic soil. You need to grow it in areas receiving partial or no shade. The best place to plant the same is near a pond or as a bog garden plant. Sow the seeds in spring in moist soil in areas receiving light shade. Within 2 to 6 weeks the seeds will germinate. Once established, the root balls can be divided in spring or autumn and replanted. If you have very little seeds, you can sow these seeds in vented containers or cold frame. When they are big enough, you can replant them in soil. You can collect the seeds by allowing the seed heads to dry on the plant. Then remove the seed heads and collect seeds.
Cotton grass in tundra is able to survive when other trees fail to flourish. This is because of certain adaptations. This plant is a perennial that has narrow leaves and flowering heads that have dense bristles. This helps them survive for a long time in form of white hair. The adaptation has helped it sweep across when there are heavy winds. Also, they are able to carry out photosynthesis in low temperatures, low light intensity as well as survive long daylight times. They spread their seeds with the help of wind pollination.
The cotton grass in Tundra is food for the migrating caribou and snow geese. They also provide food to the large heath butterfly as well as the black grouse. The seed heads are used as wicks in oil lamps by the Inuit of the Inuktitut. They were also used to stuff pillows as an alternative to geese feathers. They were however not used to spin threads as the strands are small. Hikers use it as an indicator of presence of dangerous peat bogs. In the olden days, people used seed heads for dressing wounds and baby diapers. When the plant was soiled, they could be changed.
The next time you observe the white heads, swaying in the wind, stop. Take your time to absorb their sweet beauty. I am sure, you too will fall in love with the soft cotton grass, dancing across the wetlands.