Cyperus prolifer Lam.
Common names: miniature papyrus
Cyperus prolifer is an attractive, medium-sized member of the sedge family, suitable for waterside planting. Although much smaller, the plant bears a superficial resemblance to papyrus, hence the common name. It is frequently labelled as Cyperus papyrus 'nanus' but this name has no standing and should be avoided.
Like Cyperus papyrus, C. prolifer has very inconspicuous leaves, represented by red-brown sheaths at the base of the culms. Under ideal conditions the culms may attain 1.2 m in height, but are usually shorter. They are also very much more slender than in C. papyrus and distinctly flattened-triangular in cross-section. The inflorescence comprises numerous thin stalks carrying clusters of brown spikelets at their tips; when fully developed the stalks radiate from the top of the culm to form a sphere (similar to a dandelion head) about 100 to 150 mm in diameter. The effect is most attractive. As in Cyperus papyrus, the culms are connected by a rhizome which creeps along the substrate; it is of course much thinner and more delicate than in C. papyrus but is similarly covered in thin-textured, red-brown scales.
Distribution and habitat
Cyperus prolifer occurs along the east coast of Africa, from Kenya, Tanzania and Mozambique, through KwaZulu-Natal and just into the Eastern Cape at Mkambati Nature Reserve, also on Madagascar and in the Mascarene Islands. It grows in full sun, in freshwater swamps and along watercourses, in wet mud or shallow water. Sometimes it may form sudd (an impenetrable mass of floating vegetable matter) in deeper water. In the wild it grows in low-altitude (below about 450 m), frost-free areas, but in cultivation on the Highveld, it seems able to withstand a few degrees of frost provided that the rhizomes are protected from freezing.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The species name refers to the 'proliferous' inflorescences, which often exhibit vivipary, in other words new plants grow directly from them, especially when the culms are damaged and the inflorescences become lodged in the wet substrate. The genus is cosmopolitan, with about 550 species and nearly 100 in southern Africa. Some species are widespread, in diverse habitats, but others (such as C. prolifer) have fairly restricted distributions. C. prolifer is not related to C. papyrus at all, but to a group of species including C. denudatus, another widespread wetland plant.
As in most sedges, pollination is effected by wind, and the mature fruits after release are distributed by wind and water. Little is known about the ecology of the species. In KwaZulu-Natal it has hybridized with the closely-related Cyperus sensilis.
:Uses and cultural aspects No specific traditional uses are recorded for this plant in Africa, but on Madagascar it is used for basket making. Recently it has become available in the nursery trade for use in water feature plantings.
Growing Cyperus prolifer
The growing conditions are similar to those for Cyperus papyrus, that is, full sun, with a sandy or muddy substrate on the edge of a water body. The water should be shallower, about 10 cm deep at most. For best effect the plants should be allowed to form a large colony. During the growing season, young culms are produced from the growing tip of the rhizome. From time to time the weathered old culms can be removed with a sharp implement. Propagation is by division of the rhizome. Again, companion aquatic plants should be chosen for colour or for architectural variety. It is not recommended that C. prolifer be planted beneath deciduous trees because the tree leaves, when shed, lodge in the thin stalks of the sedge inflorescences and appear unattractive.
- Archer, C. 2003. Cyperaceae. In G. Germishuizen & N.L. Meyer, Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia 14: 1020-1047.
- Haines, R.W. & Lye, K.A. 1983. The sedges and rushes of East Africa. East African Natural History Society, Nairobi.
- Simpson, D. 1994. Cyperus prolifer. The Kew Magazine 11: 6-9, t. 236.
- Simpson, D.A. & Inglis, C.A. 2001. Cyperaceae of economic, ethnobotanical and horticultural importance: a checklist. Kew Bulletin 56: 257-360.
National Herbarium, Pretoria
Plant Type: Aquatic, Grass
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Flowering season: Early Summer, Late Summer
Flower colour: Brown, Cream
Aspect: Full Sun
Gardening skill: Easy