The anatomy and morphology of leaves in Carex have the potential to be taxonomically useful. However, studies on the variability of leaf characteristics in the genus are sparse. Researchers therefore risk using leaf anatomical characters without the knowledge of whether they are consistent in a species. We examined 22 qualitative and seven quantitative leaf anatomy characters from transverse leaf sections to test their consistency across 11 Carex spp. The characters were clearly described and primarily microscopic. Some characters were found to exhibit high levels of intraspecific variation, whereas other characters exhibited high levels of consistency in a species, including the shape of the leaf section, the density of papillae and the size of epidermal cells. Caution must be applied when choosing leaf anatomy to delimit taxa because of the intraspecific variability found in some characters, but sufficient numbers of invariant characters exist to provide useful taxonomic separation. © 2013 The Linnean Society of London, Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 2013, 172, 371–384.