Papyrus Plants: Spectacular Choice for Water Gardens

From Paper to Focal Point

Papyrus plants with backdrop of yellow flowers.
Stately papyrus lends a touch of class to any water garden. David Beaulieu

What Are Papyrus Plants?

In the lingo of plant taxonomy, these storied plants are classified as Cyperus papyrus. They are categorized as sedges, a family related to the grass family. Many types of sedge -- such as the variegated Carex 'Spark Plug,'  -- have become popular in landscaping as go-to plants for boggy spots in the yard. But Chinese water chestnut (Eleocharis dulcis) is also a sedge, as is the tenacious weed, nutgrass (Cyperus rotundus), so this family is quite diverse.

Plant Description

It is difficult to state a definitive size for papyrus plants (also sometimes called "papyrus reeds"), because their size will vary depending on where they are growing. In North America, they will often reach 8 feet tall with a spread about half of that. In their native lands, by contrast, they may grow much taller. Elaine A. Evans, Adjunct Assistant Professor and Curator at the McClung Museum, cites Pliny the Elder as a source in saying 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 plants 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 is indigenous to Africa and can survive from year to year in North America only in planting zones 8 and warmer. As you probably know, papyrus plants grew in the marshes along the river Nile. This is really all you need to know to determine what growing conditions they prefer.

No doubt you've heard of the famed fertility of the soil along the banks of the Egyptian Nile, a region pounded by the sun. They need to grow in full sun (partial shade is OK if you live in a very hot climate) and in a wet soil enriched with compost, humus, etc. Ideally you should furnish them with shelter from high winds.

Care for Papyrus Plants

Papyrus plants aren't much work if you will be treating them like annuals (see below under Uses in Landscaping). 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. Because I'm leery of chemical fertilizers, I tend to err on the side of caution and use half the recommended amount. Water the fertilizer in thoroughly. 

This is one tough plant, and you shouldn't assume that you've lost a specimen just because it looks dead.

One year, I went away on vacation and returned home to a papyrus plant whose above-ground vegetation had completely turned brown. It hadn't received water while I was traveling, and it looked as if it had died. My response? I trimmed the stems down to within a couple of inches of the ground and provided it with water. The result? Within three weeks, new, green shoots were emerging all over.

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 is 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 the borders of the Land of the Pharaohs.

According to our Archaeology Expert, Kris Hirst, "Beginning about the fourth century BC, papyrus use spread into the Greco-Roman world, and it only declined after about the 7th century AD" (in favor of parchment and rag paper).

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. Evans lists medicine, food, and building material among the other uses for papyrus.

Examples of Some of the Types You Can Buy

In addition to Cyperus papyrus, there are several kinds available commercially, including some dwarf types:

  • Umbrella sedge, AKA umbrella palm (Cyperus alternifolius) -- 24-60 inches tall
  • Dwarf umbrella sedge  (Cyperus alternifolius 'Gracilis') -- ca. 24 inches tall
  • Dwarf papyrus (Cyperus haspens) --  18-30 inches tall
  • Giant dwarf papyrus (Cyperus percamenthus) -- 30-36 inches tall
  • King Tut® -- 48-60 inches tall
  • Baby Tut® -- 12-24 inches tall

Uses in Landscaping: a Water Garden Favorite

While papyrus plants are perennials in warm climates, in the North many gardeners use them as if they were annuals. They will die when subjected to frost. 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 furnish sufficient irrigation), it is most valued as a good wet-area plant. You can use it in rain gardens and in bog gardens, and it makes for a marvelous addition to a water feature. But this is a marginal plant (as is marsh marigold, to cite another example), not a deep-water plant, so watch out that you don't drown it.  "The crown of the plant should never be covered in water...," writes Proven Winners. "The root ball can be submerged but it isn't necessary."

Consequently, people who want to incorporate papyrus into a water garden typically place potted papyrus plants, as is, right into the water feature (don't remove them from their containers).

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 are not submerged. A tall papyrus in such a pot can become top-heavy, so consider weighting down the container with stones.

Design-wise, papyrus plant often works well as the centerpiece 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. Why not try growing one as the focal point of your water garden this summer?