Whether it was serendipity or fate that led him there, several years ago, Lucas Majure found himself in a Meridian, Miss., cemetery holding an odd sedge he couldn’t identify.

Majure, a Mississippi State University graduate student, was working on the flora of Lauderdale County and had stopped to check Rose Hill Cemetery. Botanists know that cemeteries are good places for such searches because rare plants — including some rare types of ferns — occasionally pop up in areas that aren’t sprayed much and grass is clipped short.

“So, he was in the cemetery poking around, looking for plants that might be new to Lauderdale County and/or the state,” says Charles Bryson, a USDA-ARS research botanist stationed in Stoneville, Miss. “And, lo and behold, he found this interesting plant (sedge in the genus Carex).”

For more on Bryson’s work, see http://deltafarmpress.com/news/061019-cogongrass-sedge/index.html and http://deltafarmpress.com/mag/farming_newly_released_weeds/index.html.

Alerted to the plant back at MSU, Bryson — who has a keen interest in invasive weeds — “Immediately knew I’d never seen the sedge and it had to be either a species new to science or from somewhere else in the world.

“I took the specimen and dissected out the achenes (fruits) and looked at them under a microscope. We have nothing native that looks like this sedge — it has a little swollen area at the top of the achene.”

Bryson would later learn there was another introduction of the same section of Carex in the Northeast. “But this other sedge has long rhizomes and individual plants are more like purple nutsedge, with isolated clumps connected by rhizomes.”

Unlike purple nutsedge, the Mississippi plant “has bunches and bunches of stems (culms) and leaves coming from one base.”

Blue sedge

After four to six months of looking at literature and borrowing specimens from botanical gardens, Bryson “finally came up with the name of the plant: blue sedge. It’s a native weed of Eastern Europe, Asia, and the subcontinent. It has also been introduced into Australia.

“We reported it as new to North America — or, actually, the New World. It isn’t known from Central or South America, either.”

During later searches around Meridian, Majure found the sedge in two other locations: another cemetery and along a trail that runs alongside a railroad track.

“We later found out there is a lot of human activity along that stretch of railroad track with hoboes and gypsies,” said Bryson. “My wife and I have visited Meridian several times and with the help of friends in the area, we now know of eight populations of blue sedge.”

So far, all finds are within a 20-mile radius.

Playing detective

So how did blue sedge end up growing in Mississippi?

“I thought there were four possible ways that the plant could have been introduced. Three of those are by highway, along railroad tracks, and through air travel — which seemed a distinct possibility because Key Field (a very important base where aerial refueling was first developed and perfected) is still operational along with a naval air station north of Meridian.”

Bryson had begun surveying along right-of-ways and highways. “I’ve never found it on a highway. I spent time on Key Field and naval air station, looked all around the grounds, and found plenty of sedges but none of this species. So, we ruled out those as bringing this plant in.”

Having ruled out the first three possibilities for introduction, Bryson turned to a fourth: a connection with gypsies.

“Now, we have found it along railroad tracks but only where there are hoboes, gypsies or vagrants camping. In fact, one of the places I found it was behind an Arby’s and there, on a concrete slab by the tracks, was someone sleeping.”

Royalty

As of early mid-April, “we’ve found blue sedge inside, or beside, four cemeteries in Meridian. It’s beside three railroad tracks frequented by gypsies and hoboes and in one church lawn. At the church, we speculate it could have been introduced in contaminated soil by a hearse or funeral procession.”

Bryson’s mother-in-law grew up in Chunky, Miss., in Newton County (adjacent to Lauderdale County). “When she was a child, she remembers the gypsies camped off Highway 80 in Chunky. Two of the sites where this sedge occurs are within 50 to 100 yards of those campsites.”

The gypsy connections don’t end there. Meridian residents refer to Rose Hill Cemetery as “the gypsy cemetery” for good reason. It turns out that gypsy royalty — the King and Queen of the Gypsies in the Americas — are buried there.

The Queen of the Gypsies, Kelly Mitchell, was buried in 1915. She actually died while giving birth to her sixteenth child in Coatopa, Ala. Her body was brought to Meridian because, at the time, it was the only place with a mortuary that could put her body on ice for preservation until the gypsy nation could gather for the funeral.

And gather they did. Reports claim over 500 carriages and between 10,000 and 20,000 people attended the funeral.

In 1942, the King of the Gypsies, Emil Mitchell, was buried alongside his queen.

Since then, hundreds of thousands have visited the cemetery to pay homage. “They leave beads, coins, trinkets, bottles, and other items. They light candles and hold rituals. I speculate visitors to the graves also brought soil or potted flowers from the home country to sprinkle, or plant, around the grave. That’s how I think the plant most likely became established.”

Since then, “blue sedge may have been spread from the Rose Hill Cemetery by maintenance crews, which work multiple cemeteries in town.”

Has Bryson found the plant in other gypsy cemeteries?

“We haven’t. We do know there is gypsy royalty buried in Memphis, Tenn.; Kansas City, Mo; Dayton, Ohio; Cecil, Md.; and two locations near Sacramento, Calif. There are also gypsies (Roma) buried in the New Orleans area.”

Bryson has tried to check the Memphis cemetery but has been rained out twice.

In 2009, “a friend checked the Dayton, Ohio, cemetery and did not find the sedge. The problem is gypsies are made up of diverse groups. There are Irish travelers, the Roma and others. All gypsies did not originate in the same part of the world.”

The royalty buried in Meridian are Roma. “Evidently, they were originally mercenaries from western India that were in conflict with Islamic extremists. They left that area and moved into the Balkans and then into Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese king didn’t want them, so he shipped them to the New World. They ended up in Brazil and the United States. The King of the Gypsies buried in Meridian was actually born in Brazil” and later became an American citizen in 1884.

Bryson admits “there’s no way to know absolutely that this plant came in with the gypsies somehow.” But put the puzzle together “and everything points to that being the primary cause. Maybe it was unintentional — seeds in pants cuffs, in shoes, or the like. We have not found any literature to indicate the sedge was of use to humans.”

Amazing connections

Majure’s discovery, says Bryson, “was a shot in the dark. He originally found the sedge when it was rather immature. The plant never gets more than 10 to 12 inches tall.”

The typical layperson “won’t see this sedge. It doesn’t have sexy flowers like orchids. It isn’t something that folks would pick and put in a vase.”

Bryson next wants to check out “the place in Alabama where the queen was living when she died. I also want to check out a gypsy camp area near Marion, Miss., and other cemeteries where gypsies are buried. If the sedge is found in another gypsy cemetery, or in areas where gypsies inhabited, it’s a slam dunk as to how it arrived in the United States.

“It’s amazing the way this whole story has developed, the connections, the way everything had to fall into place. It’s a neat story.”

When he gave a talk on blue sedge at the Southern Weed Science Society meeting a few months back, “people came up afterwards saying, ‘I know where the gypsies were. You need to look in this or that town.’ Or ‘I know where gypsies leave things at cemeteries.’

Based on the population sizes and distribution, Bryson believes the sedge “may have been brought into the United States 30 or 40 years ago and it’s continuing to spread. I don’t think the sedge was introduced in 1915 — it was probably since then.”

Has he heard from any gypsies?

“No. I wish I could talk to someone who might shed some more light on how and when the sedge was introduced.”

Does blue sedge present any threat?

“This sedge does not seem to present the threat and control challenges of nutsedge species, but its population sizes and ability to spread are factors that make it a threat in fruit and nut crops, lawns, and turf in the United States,” says Bryson. “We have not evaluated chemical controls, but it is logical to assume herbicides that control other sedges will be effective on blue sedge.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com