In its natural habitat, papyrus can reach twenty-five feet tall, with stalks up to six inches in diameter.
The Egyptian papyrus column amulet was inscribed with hieroglyphic symbols which bestowed the strength and vigor of youth to the wearer.
This is not surprising when you consider the plant lines the banks of the Nile for a thousand miles. In its natural habitat, papyrus can reach twenty-five feet tall, with stalks up to six inches in diameter.
When the Nile floods, papyrus beds are inundated for months at a time. This is its growing season when aggressive roots spread through the soft mud to produce huge colonies. These look and function much like our North American cattail. When the river recedes in the dry season, plants dry up, die back, and go dormant until waters return.
Papyrus is famous as the source of the first paper, but it had many other uses as well. The stalks were woven into mats, mummy cases and baskets like the one used to hide a small Hebrew slave babe from Pharaoh. The roots of papyrus provided valuable cooking fuel in a desert land of few trees and shrubs. The large heads of the plant were boiled for food and are still an important staple in the Sudan.
The form of giant papyrus, Cyperus papyrus is unmistakable, and has inspired design motifs of temples and lavish royal tombs to modern art. From the roots rise rod-like stalks topped with a puff or mop head of up to one hundred radiating threadlike inflorences. When flowering, these threads are tipped with unusual brown bracts.
Papyrus is a tropical plant, but it may survive some frost in marginal climates provided the roots are unharmed. Because this is a plant adapted to surviving periodic dry seasons, you can winter pots indoors away from the cold.
Wild riverbank stands of papyrus grow in full sun. They cluster densely so the stalks provide structural support for one another. A single water garden plant will be more vulnerable to wind. The individual stalks can be irreparably bent without adequate support. To stake papyrus, insert a strong bamboo stake into the center of the root ball where it is solidly anchored. You can paint the bamboo green to resemble the surrounding stalks. Then lightly lasso the stalks to it about two-thirds up from the waterline with fishing line or green jute string so they can move, but not too much.
Giant papyrus has a dwarf cousin, Papyrus haspan, that grows only twelve to eighteen inches tall. It resembles the larger plant with thin stalks topped with spikelets of flowers. The dwarf is also more shade tolerant, so it is ideal for patio water gardens. Some use it as an aquatic house plant in bright south window light.
This little papyrus naturally produces weaker stems that are actually designed to fall over. When they do, the flower heads come in contact with earth or water. The plant will quickly root at these spikelets helping it to spread more quickly than by underground roots. An easy way to propagate dwarf papyrus is to simply cut off the flower head of a friend's plant and float it upside down in a pot of water at your house.
People in frosty climates grow papyrus it as an aquatic annual. All you need is a decorative ceramic cache pot that will hold a two or five gallon nursery pot. It must be deep enough so the plastic pot rim is below the water line. Buy your container grown papyrus and set it gently into the water. The root crowns, where stem meets dirt, should sit only two to four inches under water. Use an upside down clay flower pot as a pedestal if you need to raise it up in a deeper cache pot.
Try adding some floating water hyacinth to the water to mask the papyrus nursery pot underwater. At the end of the season, remove the papyrus and allow it to dry out naturally in its nursery pot. Then store in a dark, dry frost-free place over winter. Or just throw it out and start another pharaoh's garden come spring.
(Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist and host of Weekend Gardening on DIY-Do It Yourself Network. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit www.moplants.com or www.DIYNetwork.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)