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Plant Profiles

Papyrus, toe to toe

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The feathery tops of papyrus canes are gorgeous, as are the mahogany bases of the warm-weather stems.  In Winter, those stems are brighter still:  Lobster red.  I keep my clumps in the overwintering greenhouse, which is too crammed to work as a display space.  I only discovered these vivid bases when I'd stooped down to check on pots of agapanthus sitting behind them.  

 

Bright colors, discovered in the dead of Winter:  What a surprise.  I had been overwintering papyrus all these years just to get it through until the next warm season, when it's a star.  How could I not have seen that papyrus is also a star—at least if you're on your knees while you're looking at it—in the Winter, too?

 

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There's always something new in horticulture—and sometimes it's worth kneeling before.

 

 

Here's how to grow this unique aquatic rush:


Latin Name

Cyperus papyrus

Common Name

Papyrus

Family

Cyperaceae, the Sedge family.

What kind of plant is it?

Tall perennial aquatic rush.

Hardiness

Zones 8 - 11

Habit

Strongly upright canes are closely-spaced and arise from an indefinitely-spreading colony of woody rhizomes.  They're each topped with a spherical tuft of thin green filaments.

Rate of Growth

Fast. 

Size in ten years

Papyrus can exceed fifteen feet tall where it can grow in warm (not just frost-free) and sunny weather year-round.  Spread is indefinite, and unless confined (which is only necessary if growing directly in-ground where hardy) just about infinite:  Papyrus forms massive colonies in shallow water, and in deeper water can also form equally-massive floating colonies called sudd, which have been recorded at fifteen miles long.

Texture

The overall (as well as close-at-hand) sense of peerless feathery grace is in thrilling juxtaposition with the plant's remarkable size: Potentially as tall as the ceilings in imperial reception rooms, mature papyrus dwarfs mere humans.

Grown for

its "foliage."  Technically, papyrus only has leaves at the very bottom of the triangular stems; they sheath the stems closely and are a bright mahogany color, so don't read as leaves at all.  The leaves that sheath the bottom of stems that emerge in Winter are even more colorful: A bright lobster red. 

 

The enormous feathery tuft at the top of the stem, though, isn't a congeries of true leaves at all.  Its branching filaments are very thin extensions of the stem itself. 

 

its self-contradictory (but in a good way) gestalt.  The very tall stems are leafless, unblemished as well as unbranched, and modernistically triangular; as long as the colony gets full sun they remain as aloof and vertical as a gaggle of supermodels.  So it could hardly be more of a contrast for each of them to terminate in a large sphere of thread-thin filaments that undulate almost seductively in the slightest breeze.  Or maybe not:  Undulation is inherently flirty and lightweight, also supermodel attributes.

 

its enthusiasm:  If you can provide sun, warmth, and water, papyrus will do the rest.

Flowering season

If your season is long and hot enough, each of the filaments in the huge terminal tuft becomes tipped with a small cluster of tan flowers.  The tufts are showier without the flowers, though, which weigh the filaments down and, so, degrade the tufts' Dr. Seuss-like spherical levity.

Color combinations

Papyrus goes with everything.  The bases of the stems are a lovely mahogany in Summer, but ones that emerge in cooler months are the lobster-red.  See "Partner Plants" for aquatic neighbors that can harmonize with both mahogany and lobster red.

Partner plants

Take advantage of the opportunity to contrast with the rush's unusual height, strict verticality, and unique spherical heads of filaments.  The larger the leaves, shorter the height, and broader the habit of partner plants, the better.  The round floating leaves of water lilies, then, could only be surpassed by the even larger round leaves of lotus. 

 

If you have the ultimate in water gardening budget and pond size, the giant Amazonian lily, Victoria amazonica, is the plant for you.  The round leaves can be five feet across.  Astoundingly, its best performance is when grown as an annual.  My reflecting pond is ony eight feet wide, but it's seventy feet long.  Victoria is on my bucket list.  'Longwood White' is a more practical cultivar—if any aquatic annual with a potential width of ten to forty feet could ever be described as practical—because it's more tolerant of temperatures that aren't as oppressive and sweltering as those in an equatorial jungle.  Handily, its leaves also have a showy red rim that echos the bright toes of papyrus stems.

 

On a much smaller scale, calla lilies are a terrific partner, with large pointed leaves and dense but comparatively low growth.  They also thrive in sun or shade, so can be grown right alongside a papyrus colony.  Both calla lilies and water lilies have cultivars with deep-hued flowers that would coordinate well with the dark bases of the papyrus stems. 

 

Elephant ears in the Colocasia genus grow well in shallow water, and there are cultivars that also celebrate dark and woody colors.  In particular, 'Diamond Head' has leaves of shiny ebony.

Where to use it in your garden

A large colony of papyrus can anchor even the biggest pond or reflecting pool.  A single clump sitting in a large tub of water brings the same vertical excitement without the need for the large expanse of water.  I set three pots of papyrus in a four-foot horse trough each May; by September they've formed a screen of foliage that's eight feet tall and six feet wide. 

 

If you'd like to highlight the unusual colorful bases to the stems, grow papyrus in shallow water, so only the lower half its container is submerged.  And if you're including partner plants to highlight the bases, keep them separated enough from the papyrus so they don't obscure them. 

Culture

Full sun with decent soil and plentiful water.  Papyrus normally grows with the clump submerged in shallow water, but will also thrive during the warm months in containers if just the bottom sits in water.

How to handle it: The Basics

Papyrus are so fast-growing that you can use them as annuals; even a starter clump in a four-inch pot in May will get four to six feet tall by September if you repot it lavishly and keep it submerged in shallow water.  Keeping a papyrus clump from year-to-year, though, is the only way to get the tallest and thickest possible growth.

 

Another potting strategy is to plant papyrus directly in a large tub that doesn't have any drainage hole.  Allow four or five inches of lip at the top of the tub so you can top it up with plenty of water; if you allow much less, you'd need to be refilling the container on the hour by August.

 

In Zone 9 - 11, papyrus are almost too self-reliant.  Your work will be to control them, not to cajole them.  Because they spread so widely and quickly, it's usually best not to plant them directly in wet ground:  Remember, some colonies in Africa are thousands of acres!  Instead, grow in large (and heavy) containers that are submerged a few inches; heaviness is important so that the entire colony doesn't tip over during a storm.  Plant a starter clump when the container is still above the surface of the water; spread an inch of gravel atop the soil so it doesn't wash out when you submerge the container. 

 

Papyrus develops thick rhizomes that can "walk" from the container out into the open water; they send prolific (and showy, if you're snorkeling) white roots into the water, hoping to find more open soil to root into.  You'll want to chop these rhizomes off every couple of months.  Already rooted, they couldn't be easier to pot up to give to friends or to renew your mother colony, which will thin out at the center after a while.  Every year or two you'll want to elevate the container, dig out the mother colony entirely, and replant with a few of the "walking" rhizomes you've just cut off.   

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

In Zone 8, papyrus colonies that are submerged a few inches deeper than usual will survive the Winter.  The above-water portion of the plant will get killed by frost, but as long as everything below water doesn't get frosted, new shoots will arise when the weather warms.  You might consider, then, raising the container almost to the water's surface in Spring: The sun warms the water at the top first, so growth will resume more quickly.  Before frost, submerge the container so the rhizomes are safely too deep for cold let alone the rare (at least in Zone 8, that is) episode of ice.  Six inches should be fine.  Don't cut off frost-damaged canes until danger of further cold weather is past, but then cut them off as low as possible.  Take care not to snap new canes; for all their proud and successful verticality when growing undisturbed, papyrus canes are bizarrely fragile when struck or even nudged from the side.  They bend just a bit—but then, without warning, snap irrevocably.

Quirks and special cases

Colder than  Zone 8, papyrus also thrives during the warm months in containers that sit in shallow water (whether or not the containers are fully submerged), then are brought into shelter and resubmerged for the cool months.  To minimize cane "snappage" during transit, first tie twine around the entire colony in a spiral from the base to just below where the tufts start.  Don't remove it until the colony is in its permanent location for overwintering.


I've had very poor luck overwintering colonies that were only sitting in deep saucers of water; this year I'll keep them truly submerged, thanks to a couple of ten-gallon galvanized washtubs.


Even containered colonies grow so fast that it's usually best to divide them yearly to keep them in bounds.  Try to time this for when new canes have just started to appear.  The plant will be active enough to welcome your intervention instead of being slain by it, and you'll snap off a minimum of new canes.

Downsides

Provided papyrus has enough sun, warmth, and water, it's blessedly easy and reliable as a container plant.

Variants

There are a couple of shorter papyrus cultivars, which trade off the reduced but sometimes too-tall drama of the straight species for increased ease-of-handling.  The world awaits, still, any news of cultivars with variegated stems or filaments, let alone parts that are yellow or purple. 

Availability

On-line and at nurseries.

Propagation

By division in Spring, as well as by seed.  

Native habitat

Cyperus papyrus is native to north and central Africa.  Think of those colonies along the Nile; the biblical basket of "bull-rushes" was almost certainly made of papyrus stems, which have a white pith that not only can be made into papyrus paper but is also buoyant.  "Papyrus" is the origin of the word "paper."

 
 
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