Known in Antiquity for being used to manufacture paper, Papyrus plays a vital role in the ecosystems of humid areas, being particularly attractive for nesting birds. Only hippos can cross riverbanks covered with papyrus.
Cyperus comes from Greek “kupeiros”, name given to the chufa sedge (herbaceous perennial sedge with an edible tuber). Papyrus is a word of uncertain origin.
Description and flowering period
This herbaceous aquatic plant can reach from 3 to 6 meters in height and develops rhizomes (underground stems) which run through the mud. The parts of the plant which reach above water level are the inflorescences: the elongated “stem” (in fact the inflorescence’s flower stalk), triangular in section, ends in a burst of small flower-bearing ramifications. The tiny brownish flowers are grouped in small spikes called spikelets. Papyrus sedges multiply by division of the rhizome as well as by seeds which are black and tiny and are dispersed by the wind and along waterways.
It has to be planted in muddy or sandy soil deep under the water level in a sunny location sheltered from strong winds. It tolerates short cold spells.
- Food source: The starch-rich rhizomes and stems are eaten raw or cooked. Young shoots are used as livestock fodder.
- Crafts: In antique times, a kind of paper called papyrus was made from the pulp contained within the stems. It was cut in strips, then interwoven and stuck together, then dried and smoothed out. It was also used to make small boats, mats, clothing, sandals, baskets and ropes.
The Papyrus sedge plays an important role in wetlands’ ecosystems. It is a sought after nesting place for birds. Only hippopotames and other such large animals manage to cross riverbanks that are covered in papyrus. Paper grass has become scarce along the Nile delta, due to the artificial control of water levels. It was, however very common there during Antiquity where it symbolised rebirth and the world’s regeneration (impersonated by Goddess Wadjet) and thus had reached an important religious status.
Translated by: François Saint-Hillier – MNHN