Papyrus sedge (Cyperus papyrus)

Also known as: papyrus
French: Jonc du Nil
Spanish: Papiro
GenusCyperus (1)
SizeHeight: up to 5 m (2)

The papyrus sedge is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1), and Vulnerable (VU) on the IUCN Mediterranean Red List (2).

Having been used for paper making by the ancient Egyptians, the papyrus sedge (Cyperus papyrus) has been credited with aiding the foundation of modern civilisation and has a long history in human culture (2) (4) (5).

A member of the sedge family, the papyrus sedge is a large perennial species that can grow up to a staggering five metres in height (2) (5). The stems or ‘culms’ of the papyrus sedge are three-sided to cylindrical, and can be up to 40 millimetres thick at the base (2) (5). The stems are bright green and smooth, and are topped with a structure known as an ‘umbel’, which is a cluster of thin, green stalks that resemble a large feathery crown (2) (6). The umbel is the flower-bearing structure of the plant, and the stalks bear groups of small brown flowers during the summer which then give rise to tiny dark brown fruit (2) (6). The bracts around the flowers are brown and papery (2).

The base of the papyrus sedge, known as the rhizome, grows horizontally underwater and is anchored to the substrate by numerous roots. Red-brown scales cover the younger parts of the rhizome (2).

The papyrus sedge is a widespread species and occurs in tropical central Africa, the Mediterranean region and Madagascar. It also occurs in India and Sri Lanka, and has been introduced to a number of places including America and Australia (3).

An aquatic plant, the papyrus sedge inhabits wet swamps, lake margins and stream banks. This species has a preference for peaty soil (3).

The papyrus sedge grows in large stands which can be so dense that they exclude almost all potential competitors (3) (6). The swamp around the base of the plant may be almost entirely depleted of oxygen due to the rapid growth, death and subsequent decomposition of plant matter. In order to cope with this, the papyrus sedge has a special network of large, interconnecting spaces through which oxygen diffuses from the parts of the plant above the surface, down to the roots in the deoxygenated swamp below. The roots also harbour organisms that convert nitrogen into a form that can be taken up by the plant as a nutrient (6).

Like other plants, the papyrus sedge uses photosynthesis to produce energy form the sun, with the main photosynthetic organ being the umbel. This species flowers in the summer, and pollination of the flowers is by wind rather than insects. The seeds are then distributed either by wind or water, and take several years to grow to maturity (2). The papyrus sedge can also reproduce via vegetative reproduction (7).

Although widespread and not considered to be globally threatened (1), the papyrus sedge is rare in some parts of its range (3). In Egypt, where this species was once widely cultivated, the papyrus sedge was believed to be extinct until its rediscovery in 1968 (3) (5). The reasons for its disappearance in Egypt are largely unknown (3), but could have resulted from the papyrus sedge no longer being needed in paper making. It is also a sensitive plant to factors such as increased salinity, and may have been detrimentally impacted by the alteration of the course of the Nile, which resulted in the drying up of some marshes and pools (8).

The papyrus sedge population is fragmented throughout its Mediterranean range, and in Israel, this species is threatened by collection for the garden trade (3).

Although threatened in Egypt, there are currently no conservation measures in place for the papyrus sedge. It is recommended that this species be legally protected and that its habitat be conserved. The remaining plants also need to be monitored and studied, and surveys are needed to identify any new populations (3).

In Israel, the papyrus sedge is included in the National Red List, hopefully affording this species some protection (3).

Find out more about the papyrus sedge and other African plant species:

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:

  1. IUCN Red List (December, 2011)
  2. PlantZAfrica - Cyperus papyrus (December, 2011)
  3. IUCN Mediterranean Red List (December, 2011)
  4. Prance, G. and Nesbitt, M. (2005) The Cultural History of Plants. Routledge, New York and London.
  5. Gren, L. and Synge, H. (1978) The IUCN Plant Red Data Book: Comprising Red Data Sheets on 250 Selected Plants Threatened on a World Scale. IUCN, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK.
  6. Jones, M. (1983) Papyrus: a new fuel for the third world. New Scientist, 99(1): 418-421.
  7. Environmental Council of Zambia - Cyperus papyrus (December, 2011)
  8. Serag, M.S. (2003) Ecology and biomass production of Cyperus papyrus L. on the Nile bank at Damietta, Egypt. Journal of Mediterranean Ecology, 4(3-4): 15-24.