Umbrella Palm Growing, Planting, Facts & Care (Cyperus alternifolius)
Cyperus alternifolius is often referred to as umbrella palm, umbrella papyrus, or umbrella sedge. If you find yourself prone to overwatering your plants, this perennial may be the perfect one for you! Native to Madagascar, the Arabian Peninsula, and East Africa, umbrella palm is notable for packing quite a thirst.
You can grow this hardy plant indoors, as a houseplant, or along the marginal areas of an outdoor water feature. Classified under the Cyperaceae family of flowering sedges, this papyrus species is cultivated across the globe as an ornamental.
Likened to an umbrella that’s been flipped over by the wind, C. alternifolius has stiff long stems and narrow leaves. The stems resemble the shaft of an umbrella, whereas the leaves radiate outward from the top, like spokes or ribs. Also known as scapes, the green stems reach an average height of 3 feet (91 cm), making this species more ideal (compared to other papyrus plants) for small to medium-sized ponds. Also known as bracts, the green leaves are flat and linear. They number 20 – 25 and tend to arch once they have grown quite long. In summer, this species produces flower clusters that unfortunately contribute little to the plant’s appeal.
Facts, Benefits & Uses of Umbrella Palm
Umbrella palm has a few cultivars and a subspecies (C. alternifolius subsp. flabelliformis) that has earned the RHS Award of Garden Merit. If you’re after colorful foliage, make sure to search for the ‘Variegatus’ cultivar. Like all other papyrus plants, this species will take quite well to rooting in waterlogged soil and being reared out of pots. The stems do tend to bend over once they have reached a certain height, so they may need structural reinforcement. You can use a wire ring, mesh, or wooden spokes for this purpose.
In the wild, umbrella palm is normally found in the margins of slow-moving freshwater bodies. Populations have escaped ornamental spaces and have become naturalized in canals and drains in warm regions of the world. Due to its rhizomatous means of spread, it has the capacity to become invasive when conditions are favorable. The plant has phytoremediative potential, however, and may be effective as a means to strip water systems of heavy metals. Moreover, it also has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties.
Umbrella Palm Growth, Hardiness & Climate
Hardy to USDA zones 9 – 12, umbrella palm thrives best in moist and warm environments. It is seldom able to survive in cool climates, especially when its soil is allowed to dry out. Preferred ambient temperatures range from 15˚C (59˚F) to 22˚C (72˚F). It can withstand much warmer temperatures, though the stems and bracts may require some protection from the sun. In particularly hot summers, full sun exposure can cause scorching or cause the soil to dry out. Keep in mind that this plant prefers regularly wet soil and can even grow in submerged conditions.
Slightly acidic, peaty soil is best for cultivating umbrella palm. You may want to consider keeping its roots restricted to within pots, as they can grow quite vigorously. Sometimes, the roots even rise up and out of the pot, in search of other sources of nutrients. This doesn’t necessarily mean your plant is starved or thirsty. The lengthy roots can be cut down regularly, as papyrus plants are generally not sensitive to their vegetative parts being trimmed down.
How to Plant Umbrella Palm
Umbrella palm can be planted via seed and propagated via root division and cuttings. If using seeds, select a warm, shaded area for your pots. Ideally, the pots should be placed in a tray with a few inches of water to ensure that the soil remains wet. The seeds will struggle to germinate if the soil is allowed to dry out. Once seedlings have grown to a manageable size, they can be transplanted to their own pots or re-arranged so that a few inches of soil separate them from one another.
Using cuttings may be a more efficient means of enlarging your plant populations. One way of using cuttings is by removing a whole section of stem with leaves on top. The cutting should be around 4 inches (10 cm) long. This water propagation method involves removing half the number of bracts and placing the cutting upside down in a jar or tub of clean water. Over time, the remaining bracts will produce new shoots and roots. When large enough, these can be separated from the main cutting and planted into their own pots. Make sure to keep your propagation area well-lit to encourage the growth of new tissues.
How to Care for Umbrella Palm
Umbrella palm is a low-maintenance plant. It is generally undemanding of resources, apart from well-maintained moist soil, but may benefit from periodic fertilization. Application of fertilizer should be done during its growth period, spring to summer, and should be limited to once a month. Pots that are submerged in your pond need not be fertilized as pond water nutrients can enrich the soil.
Maintain your plant’s appearance by removing any decaying parts and overgrown roots. The stems tend to crowd out pots, so you may wish to divide your plant or repot it into larger pots prior to overcrowding. You should also do so once the soil has become root-bound.
Keep an eye out for biofilm growth or dropped bracts in your pot, especially as these can decompose and attract more bacteria in a moist microenvironment. Standing water in pots should be replaced every now and then, otherwise it may attract a host of insects and eventually serve as home to larvae. Lastly, regularly check foliage and stems for spider mites, which tend to favor this species. Manually remove these from the plant or use neem oil and organic insecticides to keep them away.
How to Winter Umbrella Palm
C. alternifolius is not a cold-hardy plant and may have to be brought indoors for the duration of winter. It may survive through cold spells that dip to 10˚C (50˚F), permitted there are no occurrences of frosts, but may be unable to recover through long bouts of cold temperatures. Bracts are likely to turn brown when exposed to frost. The soil should still be kept wet even when the plant is indoors; 2 inches (5 cm) of standing water should do. Withhold fertilizer through winter.
If you live in a northern temperate zone, it is advisable to keep your umbrella palms in easily movable pots. This will ease relocation to a warm indoor environment towards the end of each year. Once temperatures have begun to rise in spring, you can return your plant outdoors.
Is Umbrella Palm Invasive or Toxic?
C. alternifolius has been listed as an exotic pest plant in some parts of the US and in Cuba due to its potential to spread quickly. If grown directly into the ground, even a lone stalk has the capacity to produce roots that permeate into the deeper layers of soil. This can make plant removal extremely difficult. Unless the rhizomes of the plant are fully removed, there’s no guarantee that a few new growths won’t sprout through the surface during the next growth period. Avoid dealing with this issue by potting your papyrus plants. Regularly trim down roots that attempt to escape the pot.
Umbrella palm is non-toxic. Take note that this species differs from another toxic plant with a similar common name, umbrella plant or umbrella tree (Schefflera).
Is Umbrella Palm Edible? Will Fish & Animals Eat it?
The tuberous portions of umbrella palm roots are edible. They can safely be consumed raw or cooked, as long as the roots have been cleansed thoroughly. Make sure they have not been harvested from areas that have high amounts of pollutants (especially heavy metals as this species may absorb those). The roots, leaves, and stem of the plant are sometimes used to make a tonic. Due to the plant’s active phytochemical compounds, this can have various disease-inhibiting effects.
Papyrus plant parts are generally safe for animal consumption. The starchy roots and shoots may be added to food for livestock. Fish may occasionally peck at the submerged parts or fallen seeds, but you need not worry as they are free of toxins.
Where to Buy Umbrella Palm & Seeds? (UK & US)
Cyperus alternifolius and its cultivars can be purchased from plant nurseries and aquascaping stores in subtropical and tropical regions. Take note of this plant’s scientific name as its features may be confused with those of other Cyperus species. Even larger papyrus species may look similar to this one when sold at a young age.