PLANT OF THE WEEK

Dr. T. Ombrello - UCC Biology Department

 

THE UMBRELLA PLANT

 

Common names:         

Umbrella plant, Umbrella palm, Umbrella sedge

 

Scientific name:    Cyperus alternifolius

 

Explanation of scientific name:

 

Cyperus           -  ancient Greek name for this and related species.

alternifolius    -  alternate leaved, in reference to the alternate arrangement of leaves at the tip of each stalk.

 

The Umbrella plant is a type of sedge plant, closely related to and similar in appearance to the grasses.  Native to several islands off the east coast of Africa (Madagascar, Mauritius, and Reunion Island) the species has been extensively spread by people and is now widely naturalized in the tropics, especially in South America and the West Indies.

The common names for this species all contain the word Umbrella, undoubtedly because each stem is topped by 12 to 20 leafy bracts that droop in all directions from the stem apex giving the distinct appearance of an umbrella.

The umbrella plant is just one species of over 600 in the genus Cyperus.  Like most of its Cyperus relatives, this plant inhabits marshes, ponds, or slow moving streams, growing to a height of 1 ˝ to 3 feet.  It is a perennial in its native habitat, but when grown in areas having seasons with freezing temperatures, it is treated as an annual or grown indoors.  The Umbrella plant was introduced into worldwide cultivation about 200 years ago for use in water gardens and as a potted plant.

Besides propagation by seed, the Umbrella plant has an unusual means of vegetative reproduction.  The plant’s stems are relatively weak and tend to crimp and bend over when subjected to even the slightest pressure.  This results in the stem apex and leaves being submerged in water, or at least contacting the moist marsh soil.  Soon after, the bent stem sends out roots and shoots from beneath its leaves, establishing a new plant.  This can be easily duplicated at home by cutting a whole stem from the plant, removing the leaf tips and lower stem to make it more manageable, and placing what remains upside down in a glass of water.  One can follow the development of the new plant over the next several weeks.  Eventually potted into soil, the plant will grow rapidly into a graceful specimen.  It is perfect for the indoor gardener who overwaters, since the Umbrella plant requires a saturated soil and does best if a saucer placed under the pot is kept filled with water.

A close relative of the Umbrella plant, the Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), is of historic interest.  Also known as the “Paper Plant”, it has been used in the Middle East and especially Egypt since 2750 BC. for paper production.  The stems of this species are 5 to 8 feet long and much thicker than those of the Umbrella plant.  Harvested stalks are split open and the soft, white, internal pith tissue is removed and cut into long strips.  The strips are glued together with a special adhesive and then pressed flat and dried to form sheets of paper.  The technique is still practiced in the Middle East to this day.