- DIVISION: Magnoliophyta
- CLASS: Liliopsida
- ORDER: Cyperales
- FAMILY: Cyperaceae
- GENUS: Cyperus
- SPECIES: papyrus
Also known as the Egyptian paper reed, this is the famed plant from which the ancient Egyptians made papyrus for their written records. Growing in dense clumps in swamps, marches, and along the edges of lakes, C. papyrus is found throughout Africa. Prolific and fast-growing by nature, C. papyrus hasn't always been able to overcome the pace of human development. Today, it is virtually absent in the Nile River marshes where it once flourished and benefited civilization.
The stately stalks, or culms, of papyrus may reach nearly 20 feet (6 meters) tall. They sprout from a central, submerged root structure called a rhizome. A papyrus stalk is not rounded—in cross-section it is triangular. The flat edges identify it it as a sedge.
The feather top-knots are a profusion of bracts, rather than true leaves, which support flower clusters, called umbels at the tip. Each umbel is made up of more than 100 thin, grass-like spokes. The flowers have no petals, and look more like a husk. Pollinated by the wind, the blossoms eventually morph into nut-like fruits that drop into the water and drift to a new location, sink, and sprout.
Papryus grows in sun along the edges of lakes and in flooded swamps. When cultivated by humans, it is common to simply split and replant the rootstock. However, papyrus grows fairly easily from seed. Plant the seeds close to the surface of moist planting mix and keep moist. The seeds generally take 25 to 30 days to sprout.
A lush thicket of papyrus is a mini ecosystem. Dead, decaying plant matter at the base feeds aquatic invertebrates. In turn, they attract hungry fish—to the benefit of bird, reptile, and amphibian predators.
Long ago, Mediterranean civilizations ate the starchy papyrus rhizomes and used them in medicines and perfumes. They also harvested papyrus stalks to craft everything from furniture to sandals to rope and even boats. And, of course, they used pulpy inner flesh of stems to create what we call paper (derived from the word papyrus itself).