Papyrus relative looks good, and makes paper, too

An umbrella plant’s tufted flowerheads sit gracefully atop long, thin stalks.

Zoe, the young daughter of a friend of mine, finds my houseplants more interesting than beautiful. She really perked up when she learned that a plant she asked about was papyrus.

School kids know that papyrus (Cyperus papyrus) was used to make paper in ancient Egypt. And here the plant was, more than 5,000 years later, growing at one of my windows.

As I admitted to Zoe, my plant is not exactly papyrus, but a close relative. Sometimes called umbrella plant (Cyperus alternifolius) for its tall stalks topped with leaves that splay out, it’s a dead ringer for papyrus. The most obvious differences are that papyrus’ stalks are topped by tufts of finer leaves, and papyrus is much more robust than umbrella plant. Growing to 15 feet, true papyrus would strain against most ceilings.

Like papyrus, umbrella plant grows in water, which is one reason it’s so popular as a houseplant. Merely set the pot in a basin of water and keep it full. There’s no fear of ever overwatering; just make sure it’s always sitting in water.

Umbrella plants look gracefully at home near or in ponds where winter temperatures hardly drop below freezing. I move my potted plant outdoors each summer.

Of course, the big question is: Can you make paper from umbrella plant?

The plant is so closely related and similar to papyrus that there is no reason why you couldn’t. You do need a good supply of stems, which is no problem given the ease with which umbrella plant propagates. Clumps of plants can be divided and replanted.

A more interesting and fecund manner of making a new plant is to cut off the top of a stalk, leaving the last few inches intact. Snug the leaves at the top of the cut stalk back around it with a rubber band and then stick the top upside down into some wet soil. New roots and shoots develop from beneath the leaves. Roots and shoots will develop even if the upside-down top is immersed in a glass of water, in which case you can be entertained.

Plants reproduce this way in the wild as the top-heavy stalks bow down into water.

The Egyptians never recorded their method for making papyrus into paper, but the Romans learned the process from them, and Pliny the Elder wrote about it in the first century B.C. So put on your toga and sandals and cut down a few umbrella plant stalks for home-made paper.

The Romans, and presumably the Egyptians, began by peeling off the outer, green layer to reveal the inner pith, which they then cut into strips. Papyrus stalks are a few inches thick, but my umbrella plant’s stalks are only an eighth to a quarter of an inch, so each one makes only a couple of strips.

After soaking a couple of days or so in water, the strips turn clear, and are then ready to be fished out of the water and laid side by side, slightly overlapping, on a piece of cloth. Another layer laid perpendicular to and on top of that first layer completes a sheet. The cloth and paper sandwiches are placed between something absorbent, such as newspaper or cardboard, and the whole stack of them is then sandwiched between wood and pressed.

In Egyptian sunlight, you could figure on the paper being dry and ready after about three weeks. Cut it to size to fit your printer.