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By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

By this point in summer many of my annuals are droopy and a bit bedraggled. But not my papyrus! It’s a real statement plant, with jaunty, upright stems and feathery fronds that are as fresh and bright today as when I bought it in spring.

Remember what you learned in ancient history class? Papyrus is what the Egyptians used to make paper. You might have not ever thought about what the plant looks like, or realize that it’s a wonderfully quirky addition to the garden or patio. It has great texture and a strong vertical form that contrasts with more mounding and rounded plant shapes. Best of all, papyrus is super easy to care for and a fast grower.

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Photograph by Kenpei, Wikimedia Commons

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) is a water-loving sedge that spreads both by rhizomes and by seed. Common names include Egyptian papyrus, bulrush, and umbrella plant. It’s perennial in USDA Plant Hardiness Zones 9 to 11, and considered an annual everywhere else, though you might be able to overwinter the plant indoors (see below). Papyrus won’t survive in temps below 35 degrees F.

It’s an obvious choice for water gardens and wet areas, but also looks great in a perennial bed, in containers; anywhere you want vertical contrast. I love it for its feather duster-like plumes, which have a whimsical look. Mine pops out of its container like an explosion of green fireworks.

In the wild, papyrus can grow 16 feet tall. Garden varieties come in dwarf, medium and large sizes, with the largest topping out at about 6 feet.

As for care, papyrus is made for the dog days of summer. It can handle full sun to bright shade and loves the heat. Though it doesn’t need deadheading or pruning, or much else in the way of maintenance, it does need lots of water. Don’t let it dry out. In fact, you almost can’t overwater.

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When growing papyrus in a pond or a container, keep the crown of the plant out of the water, but a few inches of the root ball in the water. It will do well planted in the garden, even in drier sites, though the soil should be kept moist.

Some varieties of papyrus include ‘King Tut’, which grows to 72” tall and up to 48” wide. ‘Prince Tut’ gets to be 18-30” tall, and 24-36” wide. It’s compact, with strong stems that don’t flop. ‘Baby Tut’, the smallest of the “Tut” varieties, grows to 18”-24”. Its foliage is less feathery and more umbrella-like. It can handle slightly lower temps than its big brothers, to 25 degrees F.

Use papyrus in water gardens, ponds, or bog gardens. In containers, it looks great solo in a brightly colored pot. In mixed containers it’s the “thriller” in “thriller, spiller, filler.” The vibrant green stems complement any flower color. Whether in pots or in the landscape it looks fabulous under planted with oxalis or calibrachoa. Go for a tropical vibe by pairing it with cannas and elephant ear, or for a more modern look, pair it with deep purple-leaved plants such as sweet potato vine or coleus.

I’ve read cultural info that says papyrus isn’t a good candidate for indoor growing, but with enough warmth, light, and moisture, it will go dormant and can be replanted outdoors next spring. It’s an annual where I live, so if I leave it outside it will die anyway. I’m going to give over wintering a try.

To overwinter, take the plant indoors before temps fall to 40 degrees F. Put it in a pot with a drainage hole, and then put that pot into a pot with no drainage hole. Keep water in the outer pot. Keep the plant in bright sunlight—a south-facing window is best—and temps between 60 and 65 degrees F. Don’t fertilize. Bring back outdoors when night temps are 50-55 degrees.

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