Umbrella Papyrus

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Umbrella Papyrus, Cyperus involucratus 

Family: Cyperaceae

Also known as:  Umbrella Plant, Umbrella Palm, Umbrella Sedge, African Sedge, Dwarf Papyrus Grass, False Papyrus, Flat Sedge, Umbrella Flatsedge, Windmill Sedge and Galingale

Of the some 600 herbaceous, Sedge species that compromise the Cyperus family, two are more commonly known.  The first is the Cyperus papyrus (from whence came the original parchment “paper” and out of which the tiny reed boat was made in which the infant Moses was purportedly placed and set adrift in the Nile).  The second, with not nearly as much dramatic history, is this – no less unique – Umbrella Papyrus, Umbrella Plant or, as many call it, the Umbrella Palm.  

With that having been said, there is some (to coin a phrase) “mental muddlement.”  This, widely cultivated Cyperus involucratus, originally from Madagascar (Malagasy Republic), is often confused with and misidentified asCyperus alternifolius.  Beyond that, let’s not forget the Dwarf Papyrus (Cyperus alternifolius ‘Gracilis’) that some botanical writers also call the Umbrella Plant – also known as Drain Flat-Sedge – (Cyperus eragrosti).  (Oh, it sometimes all seems so very confusing!)

At this juncture I believe I may have heard a multitude clamoring, “Wait a minute.  Slow down and back up, Tommy.  Besides all of those “look like” and “confused with” plants, you just sort of skipped over that one thing. Just what exactly is a Sedge as mentioned in that first line?”

Well, I’m glad you asked because that’s a bit simpler to answer!  A sedge is “a grass-like plant distinguished from grass by having no joints in the stems, growing in clumps or tufts in marshes and swamps.”  Though called by some an Umbrella Palm – it’s not.  Sedge is Sedge.  However, it too appreciates all manner of wet locales beyond the two just mentioned, such as creeks, drainage channels and ditches and, basically, any manner of wetlands!

For obvious reasons, the Umbrella Plant is appreciated for its attractive, umbrella-like foliage.  These “umbrella frames” grow atop, anywhere from eight to twenty-five, triangular, leafless stems with – as W. Arthur Whistler so aptly describes in his book “Tropical Ornamentals” – “terminal, tightly spiraled, leaf-like bracts, and dense inflorescences of brown spikelets.”

The true leaves are the long sheaths that cover the bases of the stems.  However, the very large leafy inflorescences are actually bracts that are clustered below the seed-heads and are, by many, confused for leaves.  The rigid, hairless, upright stems .12 to .20 inches (3-5 mm thick) are triangular to almost cylindrical in cross-section.

Rising from woody rhizomes, the Umbrella Plant grows to six and a half feet (2 meters) tall.  Those liner spikelets are ¼ to 3/8 inch (6 -10 mm) long with six to ten flowers.  They display themselves in cylindrical spikes 3/8 to 1 inch (1- 2.5 cm) long arranged in large, spreading rays four to twelve inches (10-30 cm) long.   

The three-sided, achenes (that’s Greek for seeds or nuts) are yellowish or brown and oval shaped.  They are tiny – about one mm long – and have a beaked apex (projection at the tip) of the same length. (Is the preceding as complex and confusing to you as it is to me – ya’ gotta’ just wonder about the writer!  To properly envision this, I think it’s better if you look at the pictures!)

As might be expected, like its kin, the Cyperus involucratus prefers fertile, wet soil with lots of sunshine.  If it’s not growing directly in water, or very close to it on a bank, regularly water it amply so as to ensure its roots have a consistent amount to drink.  Keep the soil mulched, working new mulch in as the old decomposes.  It will also be most appreciative of spring, summer and fall fertilization with a general, all-purpose sort.

The Umbrella Plant clumps will slowly spread, but will benefit from occasionally being cut back to ground level.  Cut out dead stalks and should you choose to do so, you can divide them in the spring with the emergence of new shoots.

But watch out.  If allowed to “escape’ it can become a nuisance.  Remember the array of wetlands in which they can easily proliferate?  In numerous locales it’s now considered an invasive plant!

Some folks like to plant these beneath large banana trees.  Ours, here in Ola Brisa Gardens, are planted in the same bed with Cyperus papyrus, Cyperus alternifolius ‘Gracilis’ and a small cluster of Lipstick Palms (Cyrtostachys renda) that just can’t quite decide whether it wishes to be there or not!

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W. Arthur Whistler aptly describes these as “terminal, tightly spiraled, leaf-like bracts, and dense inflorescences of brown spikelets.” 

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The true leaves are the long sheaths that cover the bases of the stems. However, the very large leafy inflorescences are actually bracts that are clustered below the seed-heads and are often confused for leaves.

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(Look at the top paragraph to the left to figure out what this is!)