Cyperus papyrus L.
Source: James A. Duke. 1983. Handbook of Energy Crops. unpublished.
- Folk Medicine
- Yields and Economics
- Biotic Factors
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.
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.
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.
No data available.
Complete list of references for Duke, Handbook of Energy Crops
Baumann, B.B. 1960. The botanical aspects of ancient Egyptian enbalming and
burial. Econ. Bot. 14(1):84-104.
- Kresovich et al. (1981)
- List, P.H. and Horhammer, L. 1969-1979. Hager's handbuch der pharmazeutischen
praxis. vols 2-6. Springer-Verlag, Berlin.
- N.A.S. 1976. Making aquatic weeds useful. National Academy of Sciences,
- Tackholm, V. and Drar, M. 1973. Flora of Egypt. vol. II. Otto Koeltz
Antiquariat. Reprint. Originally published 1950.
- Westlake, D.F. 1963. Comparisons of plant productivity. Biol. Rev. 38:385-425.
last update July 9, 1996