18 Jun 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.
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?
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.
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…