Hybridization is frequent in the large and ecologically significant genus Carex (Cyperaceae). In four important sections of the northern regions (Ceratocystis, Glareosae, Phacocystis and Vesicariae), the frequent occurrence of hybrids often renders the identification of “pure” species and hybrids difficult. In this study we address the origins and taxonomic rank of two taxa of section Vesicariae: Carex rostrata var. borealis and C. stenolepis. The origin and taxonomic status of C. stenolepis has been the subject of substantial debate over the years, whereas C. rostrata var. borealis has received very little attention in the years since its first description in the 19th century. By performing an extensive sampling of relevant taxa from a broad distribution range, and analyzing data from fifteen microsatellite loci developed specifically for our study together with pollen stainability measures, we resolve the hybrid origins of C. rostrata var. borealis and C. stenolepis and provide new insights into this taxonomically challenging group of sedges. Our results are in accordance with previous findings suggesting that C. stenolepis is a hybrid between C. vesicaria and C. saxatilis. They are also in accordance with a previous proposition that C. rostrata var. borealis is a hybrid between C. rostrata and C. rotundata, and furthermore suggest that both hybrids are the result of multiple, recent (i.e., postglacial) hybridization events. We found little evidence for successful sexual reproduction within C. rostrata var. borealis and C. stenolepis, but conclude that the common and recurrent, largely predictable occurrence of these taxa justifies accepting both hybrids as hybrid species with binomial names. There are, however, complications as to types and priority names, and we therefore choose to address these problems in a separate paper.
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