From statuesque to diminutive,
this family creates
A Penchant for Papyrus
by Dave Brigante
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.