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Cyperus papyrus L.


Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.

  1. Uses
  2. Folk Medicine
  3. Chemistry
  4. Description
  5. Germplasm
  6. Distribution
  7. Ecology
  8. Cultivation
  9. Harvesting
  10. Yields and Economics
  11. Energy
  12. Biotic Factors
  13. References


Very important in ancient Egypt (as early as 2,400 BC), papyrus was used for food, medicine, fiber and shelter. According to Tackholm and Drar (1973), Egyptians have used papyrus additionally for formal bouquets funeral garlands, boats, cordage, fans, sandals, mattings corkage, boxes, and paper. It was one of the most favorite plants of Ancient Egypt. The pith of papyrus was recommended for food, while the starchy rhizomes and lowermost parts of the stem were cut off and consumed raw, boiled or roasted. They were also chewn, sucked, and spit out, much as sugar cane is done today. Papyrus was also a favorite ornament in ancient art and craft. Umbel impressions were often used as handles for mirrors, fans, doors, chairs and various household furniture. Papyrus stems were used for caulking seams in wooden ships. Papyrus mats are used for making fences and huts. For paper, the ancients stripped the fibrous coverings off the stem, and slit the inner pith into waferlike strips. Laid side by side, with others placed crosswise on top, the strips were dampened, pressed, so the glue-like sap cemented them together, and dried into a sheet. (NAS, 1976)

Folk Medicine

Galen, Dioscorides and later Islamic pharmacologists, e.g. Ibn Gulgul and El Ghafiqi, included papyrus among medicinal plants. The pith was recommended for widening and drying of fistula. The main use, anyhow, seems to have been confined to burnt papyrus sheets, the ash of which was reputed to have the action of pulverised charcoal and used for certain eye diseases. Dioscorides (in 78 AD) writes that its ash checks malignant ulcers from spreading in the mouth or elsewhere. Galen (129-200 AD) says that the plant is not used in a raw state but if macerated in vinegar and burnt, the ash heals wounds. Europeans also list this among their folk cancer cures.


Glucose, fructose, unreduced polysaccharides and xylan are (List and Horhammer, 1969-1979). A sample of the stems of papyrus representing the new growth of 1917 was forwarded to the Imperial Institute, London, by the Ministry of Agriculture next year. The Institute reported that the results of the investigation indicated that these stems only furnish a moderate yield of pulp of fair quality which contained a quantity of parenchyma and was rather difficult to bleach. Pulp suitable for brown paper was prepared from the stems by mild treatment, but only cream-colored paper could be produced by treating the stems under more drastic conditions similar to those employed technically for the manufacture of white paper.


Tall, robust, leafless aquatic, up to 4 m high. Culms stout, smooth, trigonous, surrounded at base with coriaceous, large acuminate sheaths. Umbel-rays numerous, filiform, 10-45 cm long, each surrounded at base with a narrow, brown, cylindrical sheath, up to 3 cm long. Secondary umbels 3-5-rayed, supported by narrow, elongated bracts. Spike 1-2 cm long, 6-10 mm broad. Spikelets 6-10 mm long, 1 mm broad, 6-16-flowered.


The plant cultivated in Egypt belongs to the subsp. antiquorum (Willd.) Chiov. It differs from the type by its lax, shortly peduncled spikes, also by the connective which is not or hardly exserted above the anther halves (in type producing a point 1-3 times as long as the breadth of the anther). (2n = ca 102)


The papyrus reeds form vast stands in swamps, in shallow lakes, and along stream banks throughout Africa. It is considered a weed in the Sudan, Dahomey and Egypt. Uganda has ca 6,500 km2 of permanent swamp or wetlands, much of it covered in papyrus. Occurs also in Sicily and Palestine. According to Baumann (1960) the plant grows over a wide area bounded roughly by the 38th and 26th parallels on the north and south, and by the 65th and 32nd on the east and west, but is virtually absent in the lower Nile marshes where it flourished in ancient times.


Many African swamps known as the Sudd in Central Africa, are dominated by papyrus thickets, which totally block navigation. It is estimated that the Sudd areas of the White Nile, and the "Papyrus Swamps" around Lake Kioga and Victoria are responsible for the loss of 50% of that river's water through evaporation and plant transpiration. Engineers plan to shortcut the Sudd and hence increase Egypt's summer water supply. In Egypt the plant flowers throughout the year, except winter. Papyrus is estimated to range from Subtropical to Tropical Desert to Wet Forest Life Zones, tolerating annual precipitation of 1-42 dm, annual temperatures of 20-30°C, and pH of 6.0-8.5.


Propagation is done in Egypt by rootstock divisions any time in spring and summer. It is recorded, however, to produce fertile seeds under our climatic conditions. In Egypt, it is sufficient to keep seed pots under boxes covered with glass to obtain the required result. Seedlings can be raised from seed. No escape seedlings, however, have been found in Egypt, and it is said that under the most favorable conditions seeds do not germinate without the intervention of man. The rootstock should remain submerged under water, especially during summer, or at least, the soil must be kept sufficiently moist during the growing season to obtain a remunerative crop of fairly thick and long shoots. Plants grown in ordinary field beds are weaker than those grown in deeper channels at the same garden.


No data available.

Yields and Economics

A C4 plant, this species has reported to produce above-ground biomass of 30-50 MT/ha/yr, highest of ten emergent species studied by Kresovich et al. (1981), and higher than the 15-33 MT they report for corn and sweet sorghum. They estimate, in 1979 dollars, the costs of cultivating such emergents as $70-580/ha for planting 138-297 for crop maintenance, 37-199 for harvesting, and 55-234/ha for drying and densification.


Since early this century, Egypt has devoted great effort to clear the swamp vegetation which could, of course, be converted to an energy resource. Cleared channels are blocked again with the vegetation. Still harvesting papyrus for commercial use is seldom seriously considered, Westlake (1963) reports standing DM biomass as high as 70 MT/ha.

Biotic Factors

No data available.


Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
last update July 9, 1996