pierre laszlo

Cyperus papyrus (Cyperaceae)

Plant of the month    (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)
Cyperus papyrus    (Cyperaceae)
reed, aka sedge, bulrush

This tall, thin but robust, aquatic perennial can reach 5 m in height. It grows from thick, woody, underwater rhizomes, forming a dense cluster of thin, bright green leaves, 10-30 cm in length. At the top, a young plant resembles a feather-duster.
Sedges form vast stands, often square kilometers in area, along river banks, swamps and ponds, thoughout the wetter parts of Africa and the Middle East. The infant Moses, according to the Bible, was found in a sedge-papyrus boat.
Likewise, the papyrus sedge served as a cradle for culture. Even though widely known, this is worth repeating.
The sedge papyrus allowed Egyptian scribes of Antiquity a support to write on. The English word, paper, stems directly from the Egyptian ‟papyrus.‟ Moreover, to inscribe the papyrus paper, scribes used a stylus, also made from papyrus.
The oldest known papyrus dates from 3,100 BCE. Having remained unwritten upon, it was found in Hemaka’s tomb, in the northern part of Saqquara, Egypt. Hemaka was chancellor during the long reign of the First Dynasty fourth king, pharaoh Den.
In addition to paper and pen, both devices for recording information, reeds also gave us musical instruments, such as the flute, the organ, the oboe, …To this day, players  of wind instruments refer to them as reeds.  
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806-1861) thus described, in ‟A Musical Instrument,‟ the devising of the first flute:

‟What was he doing, the great god Pan
Down in the reeds by the river?‟

She then proceeds to describe the cutting of a reed, its hewing, removal of the pith and holes being notched until a flute is made. She then goes on:

‟This is the way (…)
The only way, since gods began
To make sweet music, they could succeed.‟

Then, she writes of god Plan, having made the flute that bears his name,  

‟dropping his mouth to a hole in the reed,
He blew in power by the river.‟

From Greek mythology and English poetry, let us return to Egypt and to the Egyptians of Antiquity. They had multiple uses for papyrus that grew by the Nile. They designed garlands for the gods from the feather-duster heads. They ate, raw or cooked, the pith from young shoots. They turned the woody rhizome into kitchenware, burned it for fuel. Stems served to make boats — not only for baby Moses — but also sails, and cordage. They wove it into cloth, mats and sandals.
All around the Mediterranean, humble people slept on sedge mattresses. As the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE- 17 or 18 CE) wrote in his collection entitled Fasti, ‟river sedge provided a modest couch.‟
While ancient Egyptians turned sedge papyrus into writing paper, their neighbors in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), the land framed by the parallel valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, only used the plant for sails for their boats. They did not need it for writing, since they already had clay tablets that recorded the first documented accounts in history. The clay tablets, incised with what became cuneiform script, with gradual abstraction led to both numeracy and literacy. As for the papyrus-made sails, they served to transport goods, which provided Mesopotamians with commercial ascendancy throughout the Middle East.
Papyrus swamps form ecosystems bulging with life forms. Many social species of birds, migratory or sedentary, nest within the feather-duster heads. The underwater portions serve as habitats for invertebrates, large and small, part of an extended food chain including ducks, other aquatic birds, frogs, other amphibians, and reptiles. Many other wildlife species forage for food in these submerged meadows.
These wetlands need to be protected, rather than being wantonly destroyed as they were at the hands of Saddam Hussein (1937-2006), a paranoid dictator, who eradicated 60 % of the swamps in Iraq. These ecosystems are very much necessary as shelter and food for many biological species.
They are indeed submerged meadows, with an impressive growth rate and an unrivalled ability at recycling nutrients. Papyrus swamps can sequester carbon (1.6 kg/m2.yr) when detritus accumulates underwater in anaerobic conditions. When the water level drops, exposing detritus and rhizomes to air oxidation, the swamps release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere (1.0 kg /m2.yr).
A major factor in the efficiency at trapping carbon is that sedges are C4 plants (for a full explanation of this term, see the C3-C4-entitled entry in this ‟plant of the month‟ series). A C4 plant performs photosynthesis, turning the energy from sunlight into carbohydrates, with far better effciency than C3 plants, in hot and dry climates.   
A tall and thin, seemingly fragile plant: this aspect has struck writers since Antiquity. They projected themselves, in anthropomorphic fashion, with apparent weakness coupled by very real resilience. I quote here from two seventeenth-century French writers — whose texts on sedges have been studied by generations of French schoolchildren, and are thus memorable to many a Frenchman.
One is Jean de la Fontaine (1621-1695). Adapting a fable from the Greek writer Aísôpos (6th-5th century BCE), on the olive tree and the sedge, La Fontaine contrasted the oak and the sedge. However sturdy the former, it may well break in a tempest. The latter is more pliant and survives without damage. In Marianne Moore’s (1887-1972) translation,

‟ the bulrush bent, but not the tree. (…) the hurricane threw prone / that thing of             kingly height (…)‟

The other is Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), scientist and philosopher, who wrote, in my translation:

‟Man is but a sedge, the weakest in nature, but a thinking sedge. One need not call upon the entire universe to crush him: a vapor, a mere drop of water is enough to kill him. However, even when the universe crushes him, man retains more nobility than                    whatever kills him. He knows that he is dying, whereas the universe has the advantage of ignoring it.
Our whole dignity thus consists in thinking. This is what we ought to attach ourselves to, not to space or time, that we are unable to fill. We have to endeavor, therefore, to think accurately: this is the origin of morality.  
A thinking sedge — If I am looking for dignity, I have to seek it, not in the space I occupy, but in the proper ordering of my thoughts. As a landowner, I could not be wealthier: with space, I am a mere point, the universe engulfs and drowns me. My                            thinking, however, enables me to undestand it.‟

Deep thoughts, worth pondering, occasioned by an extremely common plant from wetlands. There is, perhapse, a take-home lesson: marshes are precious to mankind, from what they already bestowed upon us, music and poetry, mathematics and philosophy, commerce and economics.