Papyrus Plant Profile

Papyrus plants with backdrop of yellow flowers.

The Spruce / David Beaulieu

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. 

Papyrus is a tall, stately plant. The triangular stem grows out of a clump; under the stem lies a thick mass of rhizomes—the means by which the plant spreads. 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 a nut). But papyrus is primarily a foliage plant: It's the accompanying "bracts" that make these umbels pop and give them strong visual appeal.

Botanical Name Cyperus papyrus 
Common Names Papyrus
Plant Type Sedge or rush
Mature Size 5 to 8 feet tall; 2- to 4-foot spread
Sun Exposure Full sun to part shade
Soil Type Wet, boggy soil
Soil pH 6.0 to 8.5 (Slightly acidic to alkaline)
Flower Color Greenish-brown
Bloom Time Mid to late summer
Hardiness Zones 8 to 10 (USDA)
Native Area Africa

How to Grow Papyrus

This plant is native to the marshy borders of the Nile River valley in Egypt, so it will grow best in locations simulating that environment: constantly wet and sunny. The soil should be fertile; barren soils will need to be amended before planting.

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. 

Papyrus plants aren't much work if you will be treating them as 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 considered invasive in the most southerly parts of the U.S.

This is a tough plant, and you shouldn't assume that you've lost a specimen just because it looks dead. If the foliage turns brown, 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 emerge.

Light

These plants prefer full sun but will tolerate part shade, especially in the hottest climates.

Soil

Papyrus grows only in wet, boggy soil such as swampy areas, space around landscape ponds, and rain gardens that see constant moisture. The soil should be quite fertile.

Water

This plant needs lots of moisture. Constant "wet feet" is preferable; in dryer locations, you will need to water it daily.

Temperature and Humidity

Papyrus is a plant indigenous to northern Africa, thus, it will survive as a hardy perennial in North America only in planting zones 8 and warmer; zone 8 may require winter mulching to protect the plants. In colder zones, papyrus is sometimes grown as a potted plant sitting in standing water; it is brought indoors to a sunroom or greenhouse for the winter.

Fertilizer

Grown in the properly fertile soil, papyrus plants don't require feeding. In poorer soils, amend the soil with organic material before planting.

Pruning Papyrus

In zones where they are perennial, papyrus foliage should be cut back to ground level in the fall or early spring. Where grown as an annual, pull out the entire plant and discard it in the fall.

Propagating Papyrus

This plant can be divided in early spring. The root clumps easily separate into pieces for replanting.

Varieties of Papyrus

A dwarf version of this plant, designated as C. p. ‘Nanus’ or C. profiler, typically grows to only 2 to 3 feet tall.

Besides the species version of Cyperus papyrus, there are several related species 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

Papyrus vs. Other Sedges

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 1 foot in height (with a spread of slightly less than that), perennial in zones 8 to 10. Unlike papyrus, it wants part shade 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.

Historical Significance

Papyrus is a plant brimming with historical significance. Along with perhaps being the bulrush referred to in the Old Testament (where baby Moses was discovered), papyrus is most famous for being the writing material used by ancient Egyptians. But 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 CE when parchment supplanted it.

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

Landscape Uses

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 place them 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 to elevate them so that the crowns of the plants aren't submerged. A tall papyrus in such a pot can become top-heavy, so consider weighting down the container with stones.

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.

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 in a greenhouse or sunroom, but the average person may find it easier to replace plants yearly.