Botanists classify Papyrus (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 that look somewhat like a nut. But papyrus is primarily a foliage plant: the accompanying bracts (modified leaves) that make the umbels pop and give them strong visual appeal.
Be aware that this is a fast-growing and spreading plant and is one of many sedges known to impede waterways and encroach on native plants. Because of this, papyrus is considered invasive in the southern U.S.
|Botanical Name||Cyperus papyrus|
|Mature Size||5-8 ft. tall, 2-4 ft. wide|
|Sun Exposure||Full, partial|
|Soil Type||Loamy, moist|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral, alkaline|
|Hardiness Zones||9-10 (USDA)|
Papyrus plants don't require very much maintenance and while this is classified as a perennial, it can be treated as an annual plant. 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. Papyrus can grow as tall as 8 feet and can easily be divided in the spring and planted in other areas.
The papyrus plant (Cyperus papyrus) is considered invasive in the most southerly parts of the U.S.
These plants prefer full sun but will tolerate part shade, especially in the hottest climates.
Papyrus grows only in wet, boggy soil such as swampy areas, around landscape ponds, and rain gardens that see constant moisture. The soil should be quite 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.
This plant needs lots of moisture. Constant wet feet are preferable, and in dryer locations, you will need to water papyrus 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 USDA hardiness zones 8 and warmer; zone 8 might 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.
Grown in properly fertile soil, papyrus plants don't require feeding. In poorer soils, amend the soil with organic material before planting.
Types 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, several related species are available commercially, including some compact varieties:
- Umbrella sedge, or umbrella palm (Cyperus alternifolius): 12 to 24 inches tall
- Dwarf umbrella sedge (Cyperus alternifolius 'Gracilis'): 24 to 36 inches tall
- Dwarf papyrus (Cyperus haspens): 12 to 18 inches tall
- Giant dwarf papyrus (Cyperus percamenthus): 24 to 30 inches tall
- 'King Tut': 48 to 60 inches tall
- 'Baby Tut': 12 to 24 inches tall
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.
Divide this plant in early spring to keep them vigorous. As part of the division process, trim away some of the older, less healthy rhizomes. For cosmetic purposes, remove the vegetation that has turned brown. When propagating, the root clumps easily separate into pieces for replanting. Here's how:
- Dig up a mature plant using a shovel, being careful not to damage any roots.
- Gently pull apart the roots using your hands to create individual plants.
- Plant them in desired and suitable location and water.
Potting and Repotting Papyrus
Papyrus grow quite well in containers. You can place these plants in containers with a drainage hole filled with potting soil and put the container into another water-filled pot or a saucer that is filled with water. These plants require constant watering and keeping a continuous water source is ideal.
Common Pests and Diseases
Papyrus plants have no serious common pests and diseases, although they can get rust fungus. This type of fungus shows up as spots and discoloration on the leaves and stems of the plant. Rust fungus can be treated with neem oil, a DIY baking soda spray, or chemical insecticides.
Any papyrus plants that are in pots can be brought indoors in areas where the temperature falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Place the pot in full sun and ensure that the soil is kept wet, and the plant should continue to thrive and grow well. Do not fertilize the papyrus during the winter; wait until the spring when you move it back outdoors.
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 one foot in height (with a spread of slightly less than that), perennial in USDA hardiness zones 8 to 10. Unlike papyrus, it requires 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 is not always desirable in the landscape.
The Historical Significance of Papyrus
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 when parchment supplanted it.
While paper comes to mind first and foremost when we think of the historical uses for papyrus (the word paper is derived from the Latin word papyrus), it has had many other uses, including as food and building material.
Landscape Uses of Papyrus
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, if you water it enough), it's most valued as a wet-area plant. You can plant it in rain gardens, and it makes a marvelous addition to a water feature. But this is a marginal plant (like marsh marigold), not a deep-water plant, so be careful that you don't drown it. You can submerge its root ball but not its crown.
Consequently, those who want to grow papyrus plants in a water garden typically grow them in containers. You might have to experiment with the water levels to get it just right. This is easily accomplished by building up bases under the containers to elevate them so that the crown of the plant isn't submerged. A tall papyrus can become top-heavy, so consider weighing down the container with stones.
Papyrus plants work well as the focal point in an arrangement of various aquatic plants with shorter plants surrounding them. 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, northern gardeners use them as annuals. Ambitious gardeners who own greenhouses sometimes overwinter them indoors in a greenhouse or sunroom, but the average gardener might find it easier to replace plants yearly.
How far apart should you plant papyrus plants?
Papyrus plants should be spaced about 3 to 5 feet apart from one another. Plant only as deep as the original container it was in and make sure you place it at least three to four feet from any building structure.
How tall can papyrus grow?
There are over 600 types of papyrus. A dwarf papyrus plant can get up to two feet, and others can grow as tall as 16 feet.
What other plants go well with papyrus plants?
Select plants that like a lot of water including blue flag iris, heliconia and star jasmine, or aquatic plants such as water lilies and lotus.