The plant: Several years back I went on a tour featuring horticulture businesses in the Valley. We stopped at the “office” of award-winning interior plant designer Ray Brooks, known as the boojum tree.
One step through the old Spanish colonial wooden doors and I was in another world. Before me was an astounding collection of unusual plants thriving in a series of inspiring garden designs, one after another. One of the first plants I saw was a striking papyrus growing in a courtyard water feature. It makes sense that a plant known to grow in the deserts of Egypt would grow here, but it hadn’t dawned on me until that day. This “bog” plant’s umbrella-like stems swayed gracefully in the breeze and made an immediate, lasting impression. With the rising popularity of pond culture and water features, the papyrus, particularly the dwarf papyrus, has made its way beyond the secret gardens of the boojum tree to the backyards of many Phoenix homes. Native to Africa, papyrus is considered a sedge or grasslike plant, not a true grass. It was cultivated in the Nile Delta region by the Egyptians to make a smooth, thin writing surface. This earliest form of paper was a source of economic importance to Egypt, so crucial that its production became a state monopoly, and the process for making it was kept secret. The secret was so well kept that nearly 1,000 years later, a former Egyptian ambassador who sought to re-create papyrus paper couldn’t find a single reference, word, or drawing documenting the paper-making process in ancient archives.
Growing guide: Full sun to partial shade
Culture: Papyrus is used primarily in ponds or water features, but it can, if kept moist enough, be planted in containers. Marginal or bog plants like papyrus thrive in shallow water near the perimeter of ponds. Though their roots grow underwater, the majority of the plant grows out and above the water. This diverse group of plants is perfect to help soften “hardscapes” and to create a natural transition from pond to garden. To plant, carefully remove a papyrus plant from its original plastic pot. Gently shake out the roots. Line a plant basket with a filter pad cut to fit or a layer of sphagnum moss. Half fill with heavy clay loam soil or a special prepackaged soil from an aquatic/pond supply store. Place the plant in the pot, positioning carefully so that the crown of the plant will rest just above the final top level of soil and gravel, and NOT under it. Fill the remaining space with more soil, then top with a half-inch of gravel or pebbles from your pond to prevent the planting medium from washing away. Position the finished basket so that the top is from just below, to no deeper than 4 inches below, the water’s surface.
Maintenance: Fertilize every six to eight weeks with fertilizer tablets (again, purchased from an aquatic/pond supply store or Web site). Trim off dead or broken stems to maintain shape. The papyrus is a tropical tender perennial, and can suffer from cold winter nights. If nipped by the cold, cut off stems as they die back. Your papyrus should resume growing as spring brings warmth. As the plant matures and the clump becomes too large, you’ll need to divide it to rejuvenate by cutting off and replanting the young outside divisions. The overgrown dead centers should be removed and discarded.
Barn Goddess tips: There are several pond experts in town. The Pond Gnome has several display ponds throughout the Valley, one of them at the Maricopa County Cooperative Extension office at 4301 E. Broadway Road in Phoenix. It’s open to the public and well worth a stop to see the lovely pond by the front entrance. You’ll get the chance to see not only the papyrus but other water-loving plants as well.