Species of the month and a mysterious name: Carex iynx, the tussock sedge

This month our ‘species of the month’ is Carex iynx, which – to be honest – is not a plant that any of us knew too much about until very recently. Generally it is observed as an occasional occurrence in grasslands and moist woodlands in Western Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania. NGT have a particular interest in it as it has been recorded as one of the dominant species of the grassland remnants found at our Mt Vandyke restoration site. Needless to say it is a species we are keen to learn more about.

We don’t often think too much about the many grasses, sedges and rushes that make up a huge proportion of Australia’s native flora. In fact the grass family, Poaceae, is the 2nd largest plant grouping in Australia and the sedge family, Cyperaceae (that includes Carex), is the 8th largest. Grasses and grass-like plants are incredibly common and widespread across all ecosystems from the tropics to the alpine areas in Australia. Although commonly associated with wetlands and water, sedges are also important elements of our terrestrial native vegetation, including temperate grasslands and woodlands, and provide important habitat for a diversity of fauna species. As a key component of the vegetation NGT is trying to put back at Mt Vandyke, Carex iynx bears investigating further.

What’s in a name?

Carex iynx, like most plant names, has a latin root – ‘Carex‘ is the Latin word for sedge which comes from the Greek word ‘kairo’ which means “to cut”, this refers to the long narrow leaves of some species have very sharp edges. Carex iynx though, is a little more benign. It is a dense tussock with floppy stems up to a metre long that curl over, providing excellent cover for a range of species, including the small mammal species that we plan to release at Mt Vandyke in the future.

The origins of ‘iynx’ is a bit harder to track down, but in Greek mythology Iynx was a nymph and the inventress of a magical love-charm known as the iynx (or alternative spelling jynx), which featured a European wryneck bird as part of the charm. These birds are a type of old world woodpecker found across Europe. Apparently wrynecks were commonly used in witchcraft because of some unique behavioural traits – they can contort their necks in a snake-like way (hence ‘wryneck’), and reportedly they hiss when attacked. Both useful actions to ward of predators. You can see this curious behavior below in a national geographic video:

We don’t have any wryneck birds in Australia, but they are common across Europe, so its not entirely out of the question that a classically trained English botanist would have been familiar with them. Carex iynx was described by Ernest Nelmes in 1944 (now deceased), so we can’t exactly ask him. So the question remains, why would a botanist name an Australian plant iynx? There are no other plants or animals in Australia with the specific name ‘iynx’, and google returns only one other species internationally, a type of ammonite with a spiral shell. So the mystery may go unsolved, but it is likely due to the floppy, curling stem that Carex iynx has, probably a direct reference to the highly mobile, curving and contorted movements of the wryneck bird.

Melissa Herpich