Dave Brigante

From statuesque to diminutive,
this family creates

A Penchant for Papyrus

by Dave Brigante
Oregon USA
Click images to enlarge

When you first think of papyrus you may have a tendency to think of the Nile River, how paper was first made, or just about warmer climates in general. For me the versatile Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) that is used as a water garden plant comes to mind. The statuesque presence of papyrus either placed at the back of a large water feature or used as a terrestrial style garden plant is really beyond compare. If you happen to live in a climate more moderate than Oregon, USA, keeping that "look" going for whatever type of garden you may have can be very soothing to a gardener's soul.

In our cooler Pacific northwest, having a greenhouse is the next best answer. If it is possible to overwinter say a 1-2 gallon (4.4-8.8 liter), 3-4 foot (.9-1.2 meter) potted plant you should be able to reach the ultimate height of 10-12 feet (3-3.7 meters) in the next growing season. By providing plenty of root space, adequate nutrition, sunshine and moisture anything is possible. At the summer's end bringing a portion of your mature plant either into a greenhouse or possibly a very bright location in your residence, kept to a minimum of 55 F (13 C) for most of the winter, the wonder of the Egyptian papyrus can be enjoyed for years to come. 

The papyrus family is very far reaching, but it all starts with the very well-known umbrella palm (Cyperus alternifolius). It is always one of our most sought-after water plants here at the nursery. The overall simplicity of its form and growth habit makes it highly desirable for many water gardeners. This one, like the Egyptian papyrus, will also work very well as a terrestrial garden plant. One advantage it has over the Egyptian is that it can be wintered over outdoors here in zone eight by placing 5-6 inches (13-15 centimeters) of mulch over the crown of the plant.

Cyperus alternifolius
Propagating umbrella palms is easy. Collect mature flower/leaf heads. Trim them down to an inch or so all the way around leaving a small portion of the stem intact, 1/2-1 inch (1.3-2.5 centimeters). After manicuring the parasol into this form, place it into a soil-loaded starter cell tray, fill the tray with water to just below the soil line, and keep it at 70-75 F (21-24 C). I use bottom heat to grow them throughout the winter, but during the summer months that really isn't necessary. Lastly on umbrella palms, it is one of the best candidates of all water plants to use as a house plant.  

Cyperus alternifolius propagation

The next family member I'd like to talk about is dwarf umbrella grass (Cyperus alternifolius 'Gracilis'). This a very similar plant to the more popular umbrella palm, but does have some defining differences. Umbrella grass is shorter in stature, attaining a mature height of just 2-3 feet (.6-.9 meters) versus the 4-6 feet (1.2-1.8 meters) that umbrella palm reaches. It also has much finer leaf blades and seems to require a warmer growing environment to flourish, thus is a slower grower in the early part of the season. One negative that comes along with it is the tendency for this variety of papyrus to be more prone to aphid infestations, especially in the newest growth tips. Being able to catch that issue early on can be critical to maintaining overall plant vigor. 

I should mention that there has been a variegated version similar to the two previously mentioned floating around but has never really taken off due to its strong reversion back to pure green fronds. (Forgive me for the poor water gardening humor but I couldn't resist.) It is very disappointing that this is the case because it would be a huge draw in the water plant industry.  

Cyperus alternifolius 'Gracilis'

Aphid damage to
Cyperus alternifolius 'Gracilis'

Continuing on the subject of variegation, there is one other especially unusual specimen called broadleaf umbrella grass (Cyperus albostriatus variegatus). It can be found in a pure green form or, often seen in varying levels of light, creamy green to bright yellow green. Here at the nursery we have found a direct connection between the amount of light the plants receive and how variegated they become: the brighter the light the lighter the variegation. Regular removal of the pure green patches also helps to keep the crop more pure. To increase this plant's potential it is best to divide it in the early spring as the new growth begins to appear.

Cyperus albostriatus variegatus
It does not grow easily from seed and its little parasols do not take to being propagated as well as others. Broadleaf umbrella grass is more suited to being used as a moist soil garden plant, but will do fine used temporarily as a marginal during the summer.   

Cyperus albostriatus variegatus

Cyperus longus
Now to the super hardy umbrella grass (Cyperus longus). It can withstand USDA Zone 4 weather conditions and will come right back early each spring. This "grass" resembles many drought tolerant ornamental grasses. The thing is this one really does prefer very wet conditions yet still looks like its heat loving cousins. It will survive as a garden plant as long as it is kept well moistened and provided with top mulch. Eventually the clump will need some dividing as it does want to sprawl a bit. Otherwise it is a good substitute for the tropical umbrella palms (grasses) albeit more grassy than palm-like. 

It's back to the tropics, as it should be in the world of papyrus. A much smaller version of Egyptian papyrus called, you guessed it, dwarf papyrus (Cyperus haspan or isocladus) is similar to its much larger counterpart, but its flower tops are quite a bit more dense. Being truly a USDA Zone 9-11 plant it does resent our semi-heated greenhouses here most winters, but begrudgingly hangs in there. This one is propagated in a similar fashion to umbrella palm (Cyperus alternifolius) and, once the seasonal temperatures ramp up, it does too. Since it is a heat lover it really requires constant moisture and does prefer to be submerged at least to the soil line. While it only reaches a height of 2-3 feet (.6-.9 meters) it can work as an excellent water bowl prospect and will do wonderfully well in all summertime pond settings. 

^ v Cyperus haspan

Having now come full circle I'd like to re-visit some facts about the main star of the show and discuss two others that are very similar to the great Egyptian papyrus. In my mind I'll forever link the also very large Mexican Papyrus (Cyperus giganteus) with the Egyptian mainly for their growth form. Both create profound statements wherever they are placed. In fact from even a short distance away it is somewhat difficult to distinguish the two. Closer examination reveals that they do have some characteristics that separate them. The Egyptian has very thin thread-like blades at the ends of its stems while the Mexican's blades are somewhat wider.  

Cyperus papyrus
seed head
The two also have a different look when it comes to their flowers and eventual seed heads. As the seed clusters begin to form on the Egyptian it is plain to see that they are somewhat oblong and at the very tips of the leaf blades, where the Mexican has little roundish spheres where the seeds are presented.  

Cyperus giganteus

Another telling sign that they are inherently different is how they handle going into fall and on into winter. I've noticed over the years that our Egyptians make it through the cooling period a lot more easily than the Mexican does.

As far as seed production is concerned the same holds true. Our Egyptian papyrus seed matures in late summer. I can usually sow it in the fall and get it through winter on heated benches. Mexican papyrus must be sown in early February and unfortunately our seed never seems to mature enough to be viable. I have found that the key to getting the mature seed from the Egyptian is to wait until the seed clusters are a dark coffee brown. After successfully sprouting the seeds a few fungicide applications can help to fight off the gray mold disease that inevitably seems to come. Growing these two from seed is a great way to go versus cutting off portions of their runners that are often too bulky to be put into conventional sized containers. If you do choose to replant from some of the mother plants, staking and trimming may help to create the stability required for plant survival.  

^ v Cyperus papyrus 'King Tut'

Finally, the newest star of the papyrus family is the wonderful King Tut papyrus (Cyperus percamenthus or Cyperus papyrus 'King Tut'). To begin with the name is so appropriate. It is King right now and, until it is superseded by another new papyrus, it's pretty much going to stay that way. I love the design potential that comes with this one. When it is used in a water bowl arrangement it's possible to simulate a much larger scene but it doesn't dominate as much as its bigger cousins do.

The incredible likeness that 'King Tut' has to the others has been a real boost to water gardening and summer gardens as a whole. It appears to hold up slightly better to changing seasons than the Mexican papyrus does and grows from seed quite readily like the Egyptian papyrus. In other regions it has been referred to as dwarf Mexican papyrus, but to me I think it looks more like a shorter version of the Egyptian.


One thing to watch out for is that it does have a tendency to scorch a bit in very hot areas. Luckily we have enough cloudy days here to avoid that. If you haven't already added this one to your summer mix I highly recommend doing so. 

Enjoying the pleasures of the papyrus family can become habit forming, whether it's annually planting them into your summer oasis or being lucky enough to have them survive year round. There isn't a better way of helping us to all slow down a bit and appreciate the beauty that they bring into our lives. 

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