Scheuchzer’s cottongrass, is a member of the sedge family (Cyperaceae). It occurs across northern Eurasia and northern North America, including many northwestern states in the contiguous USA (in the Rocky Mountains).
These perennial herbs grow 9-42cm (3-16 in.) tall with grass-like leaves. The flowering stems, characterized by single cottony heads, are much longer than the leaves. Eriophorum scheuchzeri is a wetland species that occurs in a variety of nutrient-poor, or oligotrophic, habitats. It is typically found along the edges of ponds, marshes, or streams. Large stands of Eriophorum scheuchzeri can also be found in sedge meadows (Carex spp.).
The generic name is derived from the Greek erion, meaning “wool”, and phoros, meaning “bearing”. The woolly fruiting heads of the species are a traditional fire-starter for the Inuvialuit of northern Canada. Two stones, one quartz and one pyrite (fool’s gold), can be used to create sparks that will ignite the dried cotton. The woolly heads also have traditional use as wicks in kudlik (oil lamps) and mattress-stuffing.
Gebauer and colleagues studied the effects of nutrients and oxygen on populations of the related Eriophorum angustifolium at Toolik Lake, Alaska. They found that Eriophorum angustifolium growth improved with soil anoxia (low oxygen levels), suggesting that the species (and, one speculates, the group) was well-adapted to flooding and wet habitats. A tough group of plants!