Papyrus Plants: Spectacular Choice for Water Gardens

From Paper to Focal Point

Papyrus plants with backdrop of yellow flowers.
David Beaulieu

Papyrus plant works well as the focal point of an arrangement of various aquatic plants, with shorter plants surrounding it. While its flowers aren't showy, it could serve as the poster child for so-called "architectural plants," thanks to the height it achieves, the sleekness of its leafless stalk, and the bold statement made by its fascinating umbels. Learn how to grow it and why it's important historically.

Botany and Description of Papyrus Plants

Botanists classify Cyperus papyrus as one of the sedges, a family related to the grass family. They're sometimes thought of as ornamental grasses but are not true grasses. A "sedge" is defined as a grass-like plant with triangular stems and inconspicuous flowers, usually growing in wet areas

It's difficult to state a definitive size for papyrus plants (also sometimes called "papyrus reeds") because their size varies depending on where they're growing. In North America, they'll often reach 8 feet tall with a spread about half of that. But in their native lands, they may grow much taller. It's thought that they reached 15 feet tall in ancient Egypt.

But, exact measurements aside, this is a tall, stately plant. The triangular stem grows out of a clump; under the stem lies a thick mass of rhizomes, by means of which the plant can spread. Atop the stem rests the real beauty of this sedge: a showy umbel.

The greenish-brown flowers bloom in summer then give way to the fruits (which look somewhat like nuts). But papyrus is primarily a foliage plant: It's the accompanying "bracts" that make these umbels pop and give them strong visual appeal.

Growing Conditions

Papyrus is a tropical plant. It's indigenous to Africa and can survive from year to year in North America only in planting zones 8 and warmer.

Papyrus plants grew in the sunny, fertile marshes along the Nile in ancient times. This will help you remember they like to grow in full sun and a rich, wet soil. Ideally, you should furnish them with shelter from high winds.

Another Kind of Sedge Used in Landscaping

Many plants in the sedge family have become popular in landscaping as go-to plants for boggy spots in the yard, especially the genus (Carex) known as the true sedges. The variegated Carex phyllocephala Spark Plug is an example. This palm-sedge cultivar is a great substitute for invasive ribbon grass (Phalaris arundinacea). Spark Plug is a clumping plant that reaches about a foot in height (with a spread of slightly less than that), perennial in zones 8 to 10. Unlike papyrus, it wants partial to full shade, so it can serve as a substitute for papyrus in shady areas

But Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) is also a sedge, as is the tenacious weed, nutgrass (Cyperus rotundus). So this family is quite diverse (and not always useful in the yard).

Care for Papyrus Plants

Papyrus plants aren't much work if you will be treating them like annuals. But if you live in a warm climate and wish to grow papyrus plants year-to-year, divide them in spring to keep them vigorous.

As part of the division process, trim away some of the older, less healthy rhizomes while you're at it. For cosmetic purposes, you can clean off any vegetation that browns up. Be aware that Cyperus papyrus is invasive in the most southerly parts of the U.S.

If you don't have compost to use to amend the soil and must settle for a commercial product, apply a balanced fertilizer at planting time (err on the side of caution and use half the recommended amount) and water it in thoroughly. 

This is one tough plant, and you shouldn't assume that you've lost a specimen just because it looks dead. If the foliage browns, trim the stems down to within a couple of inches of the ground and provide it with water. Within three weeks, new, green shoots may well emerge.

Papyrus in History: Writing Material for the Ancient Egyptians

Papyrus is a plant brimming with historical significance.

Perhaps the "bulrush" (where the baby Moses was discovered) referred to in the Old Testament, it's most famous for being the writing material that the ancient Egyptians used. But while we immediately think "Egypt" when we hear "papyrus," its use as an ancient writing material spread well beyond Egypt's borders. Papyrus was the writing material of choice until the 7th century or 8th century AD, when parchment supplanted it.

While paper comes to mind first and foremost when we think of the historical uses for papyrus (our word, "paper" does, after all, derive from the Latin word, "papyrus"), it has had many other uses, including as medicine, food, and a building material.

Examples of Types of Papyrus You Can Buy

Besides Cyperus papyrus, there are several kinds available commercially, including some dwarf types:

  • Umbrella sedge, or "umbrella palm" (Cyperus alternifolius): 24 to 60 inches tall
  • Dwarf umbrella sedge  (Cyperus alternifolius Gracilis): 24 inches tall
  • Dwarf papyrus (Cyperus haspens): 18 to 30 inches tall
  • Giant dwarf papyrus (Cyperus percamenthus): 30 to 36 inches tall
  • King Tut: 48 to 60 inches tall
  • Baby Tut: 12 to 24 inches tall

Uses in Landscaping: Water Garden Favorite

While papyrus plants are perennials in warm climates, in the North, many gardeners use them as if they were annuals. Ambitious gardeners who own greenhouses sometimes overwinter them indoors, but the average person may find it easier to replace plants yearly.

Although you don't have to treat papyrus as an aquatic plant (for example, you could grow it in a container garden for the patio, as long as you water enough), it's most valued as a good wet-area plant. You can use it in rain gardens, and it makes for a marvelous addition to a water feature. But this is a marginal plant (like marsh marigold), not a deep-water plant, so watch out that you don't drown it.  It's all right to submerge the root ball, but not the crown.

Consequently, people who want to grow papyrus plants in a water garden typically install them there right in their pots.

You may have to play around with the level to get it just right. This is easily accomplished by building up "bases" under your pots. The bases, which can be cinder blocks, bricks, flat stones, etc., will elevate the pots so that the crowns of the papyrus aren't submerged. A tall papyrus in such a pot can become top-heavy, so consider weighting down the container with stones.