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.
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.
References and further reading
- Archer, C. 2003. Cyperaceae. In G. Germishuizen & N.L. Meyer,
Plants of southern Africa: an annotated checklist. Strelitzia
- 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