The impressive Papyrus Sedge – Cyperus papyrus is thriving in a small pond in the Garden’s Tropical Conservatory.
The Papyrus Sedge is a large perennial plant that grows in swamps and inundate places. Its rhizomes are buried in the muddy bottom. The lower part of the stem is immersed in the water, and its top rises well above the water, with a large impressive inflorescence that resembles wireworks. The stem is thick, triangular and contains a sponge-like tissue that has air-spaces by means of which the Sedge can convey oxygen down to its underwater roots.
The Papyrus Sedge is a plant of great historical importance: the ancient Egyptians produced the first paper – the papyrus – from it. The papyrus was produced from the Sedge’s stems: after the stems were peeled, and their interior sliced into narrow lengthwise straps. The straps were laid on a hard surface, with their edges overlapping. Then, a second layer of straps was laid over the first, at a 90 degree angle to the first. The surface created was compressed dry and honed to create a sheet. The use of papyrus as a writing surface began in ancient Egypt, during the 3rd thousand BCE, and from there it spread to the entire ancient world, and continued to be used as late as the 8th century CE. The Egyptians used sheets and scrolls of papyrus, while the ancient Greeks discovered how to bind the papyrus into books. Most of the information known today about ancient Egypt comes from papyrus scrolls. It is important to keep the papyrus in dry locations, since moisture causes decay. This is why most of the papyrus scrolls and books found in Europe and Israel did not survive, or were too decayed to decipher, but papyrus scrolls from the Sahara desert and Egypt survived, due to the dry climate.
In addition to paper, the Papyrus Sedge was used to make baskets, mats, ropes and even sandals. The rhizomes were roasted and eaten.
All parts of the Sedge, apart from the roots, are annual, and die every winter. New ones grow in the spring. The dead parts remain in the water and do not rot, so that large quantities of organic matter accumulates. The organic matter is compressed and turns into peat. The Papyrus sedge is one of the main producers of peat in the Hula swamps in Israel, as well as in swamps in Africa.
Papyrus Sedge is Primarily an African plant, which is common in Eastern Africa: Sudan, Ethiopia, and Equatorial Africa. Israel is its most eastern distribution border, and the population in the Hula area is the most northern in the world. It is believed that it was brought to the island of Malta in the Mediterranean during the Roman era, for the production of paper. Israel is the eastern population border of the Papyrus Sedge, and the Hula valley population is the northernmost in the world.
In Israel the Papyrus Sedge is an endangered species. It disappeared from the coastal rivers and swamps due to pollution and drainage, and a large population remained only in the Hula valley. It is found also in the northern coasts of the Lake of Galilee and occurs sporadically in the Golan Heights. Since it is a successful ornamental plant in water bodies, it was rescued from local extinction.
In our gardens in Jerusalem, the Papyrus Sedge thrives in the tropical conservatory, but survives outdoor in the pools as well. You are welcome to visit and enjoy this historical plant.
Written By: Yael Orgad, March 2020