Cyperus textilis Thunb.
Common names: mat sedge, umbrella sedge, basket grass, rushes, emezi grass (Eng.); matjiesgoed, kooigoed, (Afr.); imisi (Xhosa)
This is a decorative waterside plant that can also be used to weave baskets and sleeping mats or to make rolled twine.
The stems (correctly termed culms) are 1-3 m tall, and have a tuft of 10 to 25 long, flat, leaf-like bracts that radiate out like the spokes of an umbrella from their tips. The stems are long and rounded, and grow from stolons or rhizomes, forming large clumps. Small branched greenish flowering spikes appear above the leaf-like bracts in late summer. The true leaves are at the base of the plant, reduced to sheaths which clasp the stem.
Distribution and habitat
Cyperus textilis is found in the southern part of South Africa, from Piketberg in the Western Cape to southern KwaZulu-Natal, where it grows along river banks and streams, in pools, dams or marshes, in wet ravines and even in coastal wetlands and brackish estuaries. Many South African place names like Matjiesfontein, Matjiesrivier, Matjiesvlei are derived from the presence of these or related plants.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Cyperus is from the Latin cuperos or the Greek kypeiros, both meaning sedge or rush. The sedge family is a cosmopolitan family of grass-like herbs usually found in moist habitats. More than 550 Cyperus species grow all over the world, with over 80 species in southern Africa. The species name textilis,also Latin, means to weave, to plait together or to construct with elaborate care.
The largest species is C. papyrus, the famous papyrus of Egypt, where it was used to make papyrus rolls until about 8 AD. We grow C. papyrus in and around some of the ponds at Kirstenbosch, where it forms handsome clumps.
Papyrus in pond at Kirstenbosch
Another species grown at Kirstenbosch is C. albostriatus, a forest floor dweller found on the eastern side of South Africa from about Uitenhage to the north of South Africa. This species is small, reaching only 0.2 to 0.5 m in height, and has much thinner, more delicate-looking stems than C. textilis, and prefers to grow in moist, not wet soil.
And we also have the 'world's worst weed', C. rotundus, better known as nut grass, and uintjie or uintjiekweek in Afrikaans, growing uninvited and hated by us and gardeners everywhere.
Cyperus textilis plants resprout after frost or periodic droughts, in fact, a population can exist for centuries in the same place, sending up new culms whenever there is enough moisture. Their tiny seeds are probably distributed in mud carried by nomadic waterfowl.
Many birds, like finches and weavers, build their nests in Cyperus textilis clumps, and the plants provide shelter for fish larvae, baby crocodiles and various kinds of snakes that live near water. Elephants and hippo often graze to a short turf the plants growing on the edges of waterholes and rivers.
Cyperus textilis does not suffer from any significant insect, fungal or bacterial diseases.
Reed beds consisting of reeds, bulrushes and sedges like Cyperus textilis are used worldwide to clean polluted water and factory effluents. The plants take up the excess nitrogen and phosphates from treated sewage, and have also proved effective in removing heavy metals and phenolic compounds from waste water.
The culms of Cyperus textilis and other species of Cyperus are used to make baskets, sleeping mats, rolled twine and other woven articles. It is also used in the building of traditional huts, particularly by the Khoi who used it to weave the mats that were used to cover the huts as well as to make a very serviceable rope to tie the poles used to make the dome-shaped framework together. The rope has also been used for binding thatch.
Growing Cyperus textilis
This is a popular garden plant and it grows easily in good garden soil in sun or shade. In bright sun the clumps will be more compact and the stems more closely packed, whereas in the shade the plants will grow taller with fewer stems giving a more graceful effect. It is quite happy growing in shallow water, or waterlogged soil but is equally happy in normal garden soil. It does well in containers or water features, and is a useful plant for waterlogged soil and heavy clay soils. This is a tender perennial, but it will survive outdoors where the winter minimum is -7ÂºC / 30ÂºF (USDA zone 9). Frost will kill the foliage but the plant will resprout in spring provided the roots were not frozen.
Use Cyperus textilis as an accent plant on the banks of ponds, lakes, streams and rivers. In a container it can be used to beautiful effect in a water feature or fish pond. It also makes an interesting addition to the sunny or shady border and is invaluable in a permanently or seasonally wet or boggy area of the garden.
Propagation is easiest by division of the clumps. When dividing a clump, it is best to keep the younger growth from the outside edges and discard the old growth at the centre. Cyperus can also be propagated by seed or by cuttings. Cuttings are made from the top 50 mm or so of a stem, including the 'umbrella'. Some of the leaf-like bracts can be removed to reduce water loss, and the cutting placed in a shallow tray of water or in moist sand. Young plants should arise from the centre of the 'umbrella' and once they have developed roots they can be removed and potted up.
- ARNOLD, T.H. & DE WET, B.C. (eds). 1993. Plants of southern Africa: names and distribution. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 62. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria.
- GOLDBLATT, P. & MANNING, J. 2000. Cape plants. A conspectus of the Cape flora of South Africa. Strelitzia 9. National Botanical Institute, Pretoria & Missouri Botanical Garden Press, Missouri.
- JACKSON, W.P.U. 1990. Origins and meanings of names of South African plant genera. University of Cape Town Printing Department, Cape Town.
- SMITH, C.A. 1966. Common names of South African plants. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa No. 35. Department of Agricultural Technical Services, Pretoria.
- VAN WYK, B-E. & GERICKE, N. 2000. People's plants. Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Christien Malan & Alice Notten
Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden
Plant Type: Grass, Perennial
SA Distribution: Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape
Soil type: Sandy, Clay, Loam
Aspect: Full Sun, Shade
Gardening skill: Easy