Lean and Green: How to Create a Modern Moment With the Ancient Papyrus Plant

Legend — namely, Plutarch — has it that when Egyptian goddess Isis was searching for the remains of her brother/lover Isis, she set out on a boat made out of papyrus plants. And not just any boat made out of papyrus; one with the power to repel crocodiles!

Yes oh yes, papyrus isn’t just for scrolls in museum glass or artsy greeting cards at the drugstore. (Or baskets full of baby Moses.) Iconic with its tall triangular stems topped with grassy pom-poms, Cyperus papyrus was one of the most important plants of ancient Egypt. The starchy rhizomes were used for food, perfume and medicine, the stems for everything from sandals and sails to tables and mats. The pith within the stems was processed into a writing medium as early as 4000 BCE, as people transitioned away from stone etchings. The oldest papyrus document in evidence dates back to circa 2560-2550 BCE.

Jardin Botanico:  Stange obsession with Papyrus

We developed an early obsession with papyrus at Jardín Botánico in Quito, Ecuador.

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During a visit in 2010, our glamorous friend Roxanne Delaney coaxed me into doing some yard work. (In fashion circles I believe it’s spelled “yardwerq.”)

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The joyous umbel of an Egyptian papyrus.

Even the word “paper” itself comes from papyrus!

As a writer married to an engineer/designer, I feel oddly validated by these facts. We’ve been landscaping with papyrus for years, planting them in our “scotch and ’smores” corner of our yard. In this corner the drainage is especially poor, good news for a plant that grows in wet environments: in rich moist soil, along the riverbanks, its roots submerged in water gardens, et cetera. Terrorized by frost, C. papyrus is hardy in USDA zones 8-10. (For its tougher cousins, see below.)

What’s also cool about this sedge — a type of flowering plant resembling grass — is that, for all its ancient following, it just. Looks. So. Modern. Its tall smooth lines harmonize beautifully with Southern California ranch houses, plus who can resist the green bursts up top that look so poppy and graphic against ’60s-style slats?

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Our friend Justin Palicki always looks this cool. We caught up with him last year outside the plant-loving Patio restaurant, whose entrance includes a pert row of papyrus.

They’re one part Eames, one part ancient Egypt!

We highly recommend papyrus for your vertical-interest needs. Other species to consider include the hardier umbrella palm Cyperus alternifolius, the shorter, lusher broadleaf umbrella grass (C. albostriatus), the dwarf papyrus that maxes out at three feet (C. isocladus, ideal for garden ponds) and the mega-hardy umbrella grass (C. longus, meet Zone 4; Zone 4, meet C. longus).

Mexican papyrus (Cyperus giganteus), which looks very similar to its Egyptian cousin, is another species to consider. For more information, check out this wonderful guide to papyrus species by Dave Brigante for Hughes Water Gardens.

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Outside the Patio, I am overcome by a burning brunch hunger.

Some fast facts about Egyptian papyrus (Cyperus papyrus):

– Native to Africa

– Hardy in USDA zones 8-10, Sunset zones 16, 17, 23,24, H1, H2

– Prefers full sun but will also thrive in partial sun

– Needs rich moist soil and ample water

– The smooth, tall, triangular stems are called “culms” and the grassy mop-tops are called “umbels”

– Can topple in the wind (we used ties to secure ours; see below)

– Best propagated by division: dig up, divide the rhizomes into two or three, and replant

– Can be overwintered as houseplants

– Flowers form on the thread-like stems up top, giving way to tiny nut-like fruit

Last month Ryan renovated their corner a little (okay, a lot), creating an 8-foot-tall by 16-foot-long cedar strip backdrop and a raised-bed habitat out of cedar to complement the slender lines of the papyrus. For the soil we used a mix of potting soil, peat moss, chicken fertilizer and sand, and topped it off with orchid bark for a bit more visual sparkle. We also beefed up our drip system and make sure to give our row of papyrus a good manual hose soak once a week.

The result: our papyrus has been basking in its new spot, sending up deep green fireworks above our longstanding pink flamingoes!

DIY warriors and fans of “long reads,” dive in to the images below for the full photo essay about the design installation…

—TH

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The final installation. Ryan created a raised bed of spongy and fertile soil, and an 8-foot-tall cedar strip fence to complement the papyrus.

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Prior to renovating this corner, our papyrus was struggling: wispy, dry and thinning. We attributed this to lack of water and hardened soil.

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Our dogged efforts to hide the battered reed fence extended to this project. The papyrus deserved better!

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Material for the cedar strip fence was primarily 2-inch by 4-inch by 8-foot cedar lumber.

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First stop: Home Depot. (Have you met Ryan’s glam new truck?)

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…Next stop: Maker Place. The fence needed be 16 feet long and portable. To do this, Ryan built the fence in 4 4-f00t sections. One section is framed in the above photo.

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After using a table saw to cut over 100 1/4-inch by 1-3/4-inch x 8-foot long strips, Ryan glued and stapled the strips to the frame.

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The cedar strips were compressed together before stapling to form a solid fence. The thinner the strips, the more they weill warp as the wood dries. We think it adds some 3D interest to the fence. No, really; check out the third photo down.

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Time to stage those four sections…

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Before staining, Ryan had to make sure the sections fit!

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Our new favorite line of stains? Sikkens Cetol SRD. Here we apply a single coat of the translucent exterior stain. We chose color “Natural” to match the polyurethaned cedar chairs. We weren’t too excited about Sikkens’ “Cedar” color option, which had a bit too much red tint in it.

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Let the final installation begin! We realized that we needed to relocate the jade plant at the right to make room for more papyrus.

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We secured the frame of the first section to a post set in concrete. Wind in this location is actually quite minimal, even during the heaviest Santa Ana gusts throughout the yard. Good news for an 8-foot-tall fence and also for the papyrus.

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The fence sections slotted together.

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The fence sections fit together right-to-left and the frames are secured with a single bracket to rigid fence posts.

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Then it was time to plant more papyrus plants. We reaffirmed a lack of drainage here to assure that our papyrus would thrive. An hour after filling the hole with water, the level only went down an inch or two. For most other plants, this would not be a good home. For the areas of your garden with poor drainage, consider the papyrus.

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Loosening up the rootball prior to planting one of the new papyrus plants.

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Now to bring in more soil. We used potting soil as a base and amended it with chicken fertilizer (a slow-release fertilizer), peat moss and sand.

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Our proportions were approximately 4-2-1-1 (of organic potting soil, peat moss, chicken fertilizer and sand). We didn’t really apply any exact formula. We wanted to create a loose, fertile and spongy soil.

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We added about two inches of fertile, spongy soil to the raised bed.

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We needed to increase the irrigation to our papyrus bed. We had previously installed a half-inch plastic irrigation tube behind the papyrus and a single dripper to each plant.

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We doubled the irrigation by installing 2 to 3 drippers per plant. Our drip system is set for once every other day for 20 minutes.

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…And made a commitment to give them weekly waterings. In a garden full of drought-tolerant succulents, our papyrus is one of the rare water babies.

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We hammered in nails across the cedar fence and formed loops with garden wire to trellis our papyrus and prevent them from blowing over in higher winds. The 8-foot-tall fence also helps shield the plant from winds, which is important when growing papyrus as they tend to fall over — especially if the roots are not deeply set.

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The stems (or culms) lose color as they age and die.

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To keep the plant healthy and aesthetically pleasing, cut off the dead shoot near the base, just above the rhizome.

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Our papyrus is now singing a new song. Come Fourth of July, we expect even better green fireworks on the west end of our garden.

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The Preway fireplace and the papyrus are a match made in prefab heaven.

Pink flamingoes and papyrus

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  • Denise

    Love this! I have a few areas in my garden that they would thrive in.

    • Ooh! We can’t wait to see ’em once they’re in. 😉

  • That’s a great way to get some height in such a narrow space.

  • Denise

    An elegant use of an old world plant. Love your outdoor living room!