Cyperus papyrus (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
|Spice / condiment|
|Carbohydrate / starch|
|Dye / tannin|
|Forage / feed|
- Protologue: Sp. pl. 1: 47 (1753).
- Family: Cyperaceae
- Chromosome number: n = c. 50, 2n = c. 102
- Papyrus, Egyptian paper plant, paper reed (En).
- Papyrus, souchet à papier, papier du Nil (Fr).
- Papiro (Po).
- Mafunjo, njaanjaa (Sw).
Origin and geographic distribution
Cyperus papyrus originated in Central Africa and has spread over tropical Africa (including Madagascar). It has been cultivated in Egypt and neighbouring areas since ancient times and is sometimes naturalized in the Mediterranean area. Nowadays it is widely grown as an ornamental.
The pith of the stem was used by early civilizations (Egyptians, Greeks, Romans) to make a primitive form of paper, and the plant was cultivated for this purpose in the Egyptian Nile delta, Palestine and southern Europe. It was already in use by 3500 BC and fragments of papyrus sheets dated at 4600 years old have been found. The fibrous outer parts of the stem were used in ancient Egypt for making ropes, baskets, nets, sails, mats, sandals and furniture coverings. The stems were also made into boats and dried plant material served as fuel. The woody rhizome was used for making utensils and as fuel, while the pith was eaten raw or cooked and used for caulking boats.
Nowadays Cyperus papyrus is only cultivated on a small scale and used locally for mat-making and similar purposes. Papyrus stems or the fibre extracted from their outer layers also serve to make ropes, as thatching material, for sound isolation of metal roofs, and for construction and furniture. In the Lake Chad area the stems are made into canoes, rafts and watertight baskets. In Gabon the stems are woven into mats that are used as house partitions. After removal of the outer bark, they are cut into pieces and dried, and used for stuffing mattresses and cushions. Near Lake Victoria in Kenya papyrus is used principally to make mats from the stems, and in Uganda strips cut from the stems are woven into mats, carpets, baskets, fish traps and trays. In refugee camps in the Great Lakes region an innovative process has been developed for manufacturing sanitary napkins from papyrus pith, waste paper, and water. In Zambia the stems are locally used for construction and for making sleeping mats and screens. In Zimbabwe the fibrous outer part of the stem is used for making mats. In northern Botswana the stems are made into rafts and sleeping mats, and in Namibia into baskets and mats.
Many attempts at paper and board manufacture have failed, though there are successful examples of factories in Uganda and Rwanda utilizing papyrus to make cardboard and wallboard. Around 1920, a papyrus-based pulping mill operated for a short time in South Africa.
In Central Africa the pith of the old, dried stems is eaten. In southern Africa the lower part of the stem is eaten and the pith is chewed like sugar cane. The rhizome is edible as well. The plant is browsed by livestock. The dried rhizomes as well as the stems are used as fuel. In Burundi the ash of burnt plants has been used as a vegetable salt. Cyperus papyrus is planted worldwide as an ornamental, and the stems and inflorescences are used in floral arrangements.
Experiments indicate that the high biomass production of Cyperus papyrus makes it effective in removing N and P from wastewater and eutrophic pond water, and papyrus swamps serve as natural filters of sediment and pollutants and as shore stabilizers. The nutrient and pollutant-removal action of papyrus can be exploited in manmade waste-treatment ditches or constructed wetlands. Other environmental services of interest are potential carbon sequestration in the peaty sediments formed under papyrus swamps, though this peat is rapidly oxidized during periods of low water, hence releasing its stored carbon.
In traditional East African medicine the leaf is an ingredient of preparations used for the treatment of oedema.
In Uganda ash from the burnt inflorescence is used for the treatment of vaginal and rectal prolapse. In Tanzania a root decoction is taken together with the leaf sap of Maytenus senegalensis (Lam.) Exell for the treatment of female sterility. In Botswana the outer stem parts are used for making a cough remedy.
Production and international trade
Cyperus papyrus is mostly used by the harvester or traded very locally, although some papyrus-derived handicrafts are sold to tourists.
Ancient Egyptian papyrus sheets made from Cyperus papyrus have a characteristic grid pattern when backlit, due to the method of fabrication from one layer of strips laid side by side and another layer laid perpendicular to the first one. The pith used to make these papyrus sheets contains 54–68% cellulose and 24–32% lignin. Papyrus fibre cells are ( 1–)1.8(–4) mm long and (8–)12(–25) μm wide. They are narrow, thick-walled and have pointed ends. Investigations in the early 20th Century showed that papyrus stems from Egypt provided a moderate pulp yield of fair quality, but the pulp was difficult to bleach. Experiments with Cyperus papyrus in South Africa gave pulp yields of 45–48%. Because the stems have no nodes, the pulp does not contain hard particles, and even rayon-grade pulp has been produced from papyrus. However, the pith must be removed, as it does not add strength to the paper but uses pulping chemicals and makes washing and forming of the paper difficult. The pith is not a problem for the production of hardboard. More recently it has been found that the major pulping chemicals successfully pulp papyrus and the pulp can be bleached under conditions similar to those required for rice straw. The resulting pulp can be used as the main constituent of writing and printing papers, but not for wrapping paper.
According to a Kenyan study, juvenile umbels have a crude protein content of 11% and a ruminant digestibility of 38%, and mature umbels a crude protein content of 10% and a digestibility of 28%. Juvenile stems have a crude protein content of 4% and a digestibility of 45%, while mature stems have a crude protein content of 3.5% and a digestibility of 30%. These digestibility ranges compare favourably with common East African forage grasses, though it is not clear if papyrus would be a suitable forage to meet ruminant nutritional needs without supplementation. The great height of papyrus plants and the unsuitability of papyrus terrain for passage and grazing by heavy animals imply that its most plausible use would be as a chopped fodder to supplement protein-poor forages, especially in the dry season when grasses decrease in nutritional value. The alkaloids tyramine and octopamine have been recorded from the leaf.
Papyrus stems used as fuel produce a large amount of smoke and ash when burnt, and therefore they are rarely used in household cooking, but mostly in cottage industries such as for the preparation of beverages.
Robust, perennial herb with creeping rhizome; rhizome 2–6 cm thick, densely covered with black scales 5–10 cm × 5–10 cm; stems up to 5(–9) m tall, trigonous, green. Leaves in 3 vertical ranks, bladeless, except for sterile shoots; sheath 30–45 cm × 2–5 mm, the lowest ones much shorter. Inflorescence terminal, umbelliform, 30–60 cm × 30–80 cm; involucral bracts up to 12, lanceolate, major ones 5–18 cm × 1–3 cm, pale brown, never green; inflorescence branches 50–360 per stem, unequal, 5–40 cm × 1–1.5 mm, green, each with a simple umbel of 2–5 spikes; secondary bracts filiform, 4–12 cm long, green; spikes 15–30 mm × 6–12 mm, with 12–40 spreading spikelets. Spikelet cylindrical to slightly compressed, 3–12 mm × 0.5–1.5 mm, 5–17-flowered; glumes distichous, ovate, 1.5–2.5 mm long, pale brown with green midvein, the lower ones empty; flowers bisexual; stamens 3; ovary superior, stigmas 3. Fruit an ovate, trigonous nutlet c. 1 mm × 0.5 mm, grey, almost smooth.
Other botanical information
Cyperus comprises c. 650 species, mainly in the tropics and subtropics.
The stems are composed of a fibrous green outer skin surrounding a soft white pith. This pith is a mass of parenchyma cells surrounding hollow air ducts and rigid fibrovascular bundles. These fibrovascular bundles appear as dark lines in backlit Egyptian papyrus sheets. The air ducts contribute to stem buoyancy and are also involved in CO2 recycling within the plant.
Growth and development
A mature papyrus plant consists of stems of different maturity all arising from the same rhizome. Stems first elongate from this base with their umbel partially closed until they reach full height, at which point the umbel opens fully. Eventually mature stems senesce and die, leaving only a dry broken stump. The time from emergence of a new stem to death of that stem has been measured at 147 days at a highly productive site in Lake George (Uganda). The plant normally has no functioning leaves, instead carrying out photosynthesis through sterile umbel inflorescences adapted to the purpose (a typical stand of papyrus also has some stems with fertile umbels). The true leaves that accompany the early emergence and extension of new stems senesce under a mature canopy, because in a mature stand of papyrus little light reaches the base of plants. These leaves only serve as photosynthesizing organs during regrowth after cutting or burning of a papyrus stand, or in areas newly colonized by papyrus plants. In southern Africa flowering is in November–March.
Cyperus papyrus has C4-photosynthesis, which contributes to its exceptionally high productivity. The stems have numerous large intercellular air cavities and ‘Krantz’ chlorenchyma, which are involved in CO2-recycling. In natural swamps growth rates up to about 40 g/m² dry weight per day have been recorded, resulting in a theoretical annual production up to 145 t dry matter per ha, while in a constructed wetland in Uganda the annual production was 240 t per ha per year. In hydroponic culture short-term growth rates up to 125 g/m² dry weight per day are possible. In Lake Naivasha (Kenya) the total standing biomass was found to be 78 t dry matter per ha. Of this total biomass 57% was located in the rhizome, 1% in the roots, 29% in the stems and 13% in the umbels. In a study in Lake Victoria in Tanzania a total standing biomass of 151 t dry matter per ha was recorded, with 27% in the rhizome, 14% in the roots, 41% in the stems and 18% in the umbels.
Cyperus papyrus occurs from sea level up to 2500 m altitude in swamps and along the margins of lakes and rivers. It may form floating mats in open water, but is usually anchored by its rhizome in shallow water. It is adversely affected by seasonal flooding regimes exceeding 3–4 m in amplitude, flash flooding or very low water levels during the dry season. The plant is sometimes considered a nuisance, forming floating islands that obstruct navigation and water flow.
Cyperus papyrus is the dominant species in most African permanent swamps. It is estimated that monotypic and mixed papyrus swamps cover 40,000 km² in Central and East Africa alone. The Sudd wetland along the White Nile in Sudan is one of the world’s largest wetlands and is dominated by Cyperus papyrus. Papyrus swamps serve to control nutrient and water flows for the associated bodies of water, filtering silt, nutrients, and pollutants from inflow, and moderating seasonal fluctuations in water level. They form a habitat for numerous species of birds, fish and aquatic mammals. In the Gaba swamp near Lake Victoria in Uganda the productivity of Cyperus papyrus is negatively affected by alum sludge discharges of a water treatment plant.
Papyrus grows year-round, with rapid uptake of nutrients and accumulation of biomass. Dead plants sink to anaerobic layers of the swamp and form a mass of peat. This peat serves as a carbon sink while submerged, but is rapidly decomposed and oxidized to release carbon dioxide gas when the water level falls dramatically, for example during the annual dry season. Annual carbon sequestration by a papyrus swamp in Lake Naivasha, Kenya has been estimated at 5–16 t per ha.
Propagation and planting
Cyperus papyrus can be propagated by seed or rhizome pieces, with the latter most commonly used. The seeds need light to germinate.
The rhizome of planted Cyperus papyrus should be permanently submerged, though a saturated soil can also meet moisture requirements for the plant.
Stems and rhizomes can be harvested year-round as the plant is a perennial with little seasonal variation in growth. However, in the Lake Bunyonyi region (Uganda) harvesting is concentrated in the dry season, perhaps because the swamps are more easy to enter when the water level is low, and around the beginning of each school semester, when households must pay school fees. Ecological studies indicate that annual harvest rates of 20% or more of the biomass reduce this biomass drastically over the long-term, so only 10–15% of the biomass should be taken annually for a sustainable exploitation.
The aboveground production of Cyperus papyrus in Lake Naivasha swamp in Kenya has been estimated at about 50 t/ha dry matter per year.
Handling after harvest
In ancient Egypt Cyperus papyrus was probably made into writing material by stripping the fibrous outer parts from the stems and slitting the inner pith into strips. These strips were laid side by side (and slightly overlapping), with a second layer of strips placed crosswise on top. This matrix of strips was then moistened, pressed together, sun-dried, and polished to make papyrus paper. Modern uses of the stems for thatch or crafts involve drying the stems or strips cut from the stems, and weaving or bundling these together.
Cyperus papyrus is widespread in Africa and elsewhere in the world, and reproduces both sexually and vegetatively, hence there is little risk of genetic erosion. However, it has almost entirely disappeared from the lower reaches of the Nile river, and the extent of many local papyrus swamps in Central and East Africa has diminished due to drainage and infilling for cultivation and construction, as well as water pollution and overharvesting of papyrus by the local population. In some parts of Kenya the area with papyrus swamps decreased by 50% between 1969 and 2000.
No breeding programmes of Cyperus papyrus are known to exist.
Although the cultivation of Cyperus papyrus is not important anymore, its value to the human communities surrounding natural papyrus swamps is extremely high. Figures on sustainable harvesting rates for cultivated papyrus do not exist, though if sustainable rates from natural swamps are an indicator, only 10% of standing biomass could be harvested any given year, giving potential annual yields of 1–14 t of stem biomass per hectare. This does not compare favourably with other common biomass producers such as maize, sorghum, or sugarcane. On top of this, use of papyrus as fuel gives much less economic benefit than craft production. For example, near Lake Bunyonyi (Uganda) 77% of harvested papyrus stems are used as fuel, even though a square-meter patch of cut stems earns US$ 0.13 if sold for use as fuel, compared to US$ 8 if made into baskets or hats. Hence to conserve papyrus resources and maximize economic benefit for users, it is desirable to shift use from fuel towards handicrafts and other high-value products, if there is a market.
Setting aside papyrus swamps for nature conservation or carbon sequestration may offer the greatest societal benefits on a worldwide scale, but unless there is direct compensation to the local people who depend on the swamps for economic activities, such a conservation-based ban on harvesting activities would greatly harm local welfare. An option would be to develop management plans to shift papyrus harvesting toward higher-value, lower-intensity uses such as crafts made from stems, paired with carbon-sequestration payments from the international community to the local populations managing these swamps sustainably.
Although Cyperus papyrus is no longer widely cultivated, industrial uses for paper pulp, specialty craft products, or even biomass fuel could encourage a resurgence in cultivation.
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Correct citation of this article
Vaughan, G., 2011. Cyperus papyrus L. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.
Accessed 2 March 2020.
- See the Prota4U database.