Monday, August 25, 2014

A Compendium of Compost Mythology

It is a tribute to composting that humans have taken such a simple, natural process and elevated it through myth and misunderstanding into a form of new age alchemy. The spread of these myths has been facilitated by word of mouth, misguided publications from solid waste managers, and, worst of all, hard-core marketing. In order to keep composting simple and inexpensive, let's put to rest some of the more popular myths.

Compost Bins
There are scores of weird and wonderful commercial designs available: from black plastic Klingon boxes to rotating drums to free-wheeling spheres. The prices range from tens to hundreds of dollars. Advertisements and popular literature lead many composting novices to believe that an enclosed bin is essential. The reality is that heaps or piles work just fine. If you want to keep your pile tidy, consider using wire mesh, or reusing scrap lumber, shipping pallets, cinder blocks, or an old trash can. If you want a prefabricated bin, consider volume before you buy: more money is often less capacity, with the highest capacity models generally selling for less than 40 dollars.

These bacteria-laden powders and liquids are the snake oil of composting. While they do contain "cultured" strains of bacteria and other additives, the fact is that special inoculants are unnecessary. Recent studies suggest that there are approximately 10 trillion bacteria in a spoonful of garden soil. Every fallen leaf and blade of grass you add to your pile is already covered with hundreds of thousands of bacteria -- more than enough to do the job.

Yeast, Elixirs, and Worms
There are a number of recommended additives for boosting compost performance, most of which are unsubstantiated or silly. Adding yeast is the most common, which is expensive and useless. Some practitioners suggest pouring Coca Cola into the pile to increase biological activity, which will take place, though mostly in the form of yellow jackets and ants. Adding worms or worm cocoons has grown in popularity due to some confusion with vermicomposting. Worms do a tremendous amount of good, but need not be purchased or transplanted: just build a pile and they will come.

Adding fertilizer to increase the nitrogen content of a pile is wasteful and expensive. More importantly, synthetically derived fertilizers contain high salt levels and other compounds (perhaps even pesticides) which are harmful to worms and microorganisms. If you must have additional nitrogen, use organic sources: spent grounds from a coffee shop, a neighbor's grass clippings, agricultural manures, or dried blood.

Many gardeners with a high proportion of acid-rich materials mistakenly add lime to their pile to produce compost with a balanced pH. Unfortunately, adding ground limestone will turn your compost ecosystem into an ammonia factory, with nitrogen rapidly lost as a noxious gas. Finished compost is almost always lightly alkaline naturally.

A properly built and managed compost pile should smell like the humus-sweet duff of a forest floor. Odors result primarily through mistakes: trying to compost grass clippings by themselves, adding too many food scraps (or the wrong types of food), and anaerobic conditions caused by poor drainage or lack of aeration.

Rodents and Pests
Compost piles almost never attract pests if they contain only yard trimmings. Adding food to a pile increases the attractiveness somewhat, but only if managed improperly, such as dumping scraps on the top of a pile or bin. Urban composters might want to avoid adding food altogether or use a worm box or a completely enclosed design. Meanwhile, compost piles fall well behind birdfeeders, outdoor pet food bowls, pet feces, and trash containers as residential causes for rodent activity.

Adding different types of material to a compost pile in varying proportions is appropriate only if all of the materials are on hand at one time, which is seldom the case. Moreover, lasagna-style compost piles must still be mixed and turned to evenly distribute materials: discreet layers of grass will simply clump together and become anaerobic. Mix, stir, and fluff to cook up your delicious batch of hard-working compost stew.

Fourteen-day Compost
A number of magazine ads have hoodwinked well-intentioned gardeners into thinking that they must produce compost in 14 days. Such expectations are unrealistic and unworthy. Decomposition takes time. While producing compost quickly has some merit, no one should feel compelled to purchase chipper-shredders or other elaborate equipment. In fact, even if material looks like compost after several weeks, it still requires a one-month maturation period before it should be used in the garden.

Compost Calculus
For years, books, periodicals, and composting brochures have obsessed on carbon-to-nitrogen ratios. Regrettably, the arcane charts, tables, and formulas provided overwhelm many gardeners. In truth, compost piles thrive when different types of material (moist and dry, green and brown) are mixed together. And while ratios are fine for compost hobbyists, regular gardeners need only remember that all organic materials will compost in a timely manner given some prudent attention.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Friday, August 22, 2014

Hanging with Your Indoor Plants

Indoor hanging plants seem to come and go in style. Unfortunately, many people lose interest in them because they become bored with little more than green fronds hanging over their heads. But hanging plants can offer a great deal more, depending on how they are selected.

A hanging plant does not simply mean Boston ferns, Swedish ivy, and spider plants, although these are remarkably easy to grow. There are some foliage plants which sport colorful stripes and veins, while others offer weird and intriguing leaf shapes. There are also a great many flowering plants ideal for indoor hanging baskets, each suited to different levels of light exposure, as well as temperature and humidity ranges.

In fact, it is possible to find an indoor hanging plant for every conceivable situation. The trick is actually reading plant labels before bringing a plant home and also doing some quick horticultural research before visiting a reliable garden center.

Some basic concerns for hanging plants involve just how you plan to hang them. Nothing is less appealing than simply dangling an inexpensive plastic pot from a hook in the ceiling. Instead, consider grouping three or five containers of various sizes together in an open, well-lit area and hanging them at different levels. Your arrangement will create a sense of both height and depth. While determining the height at which you will suspend the plants, keep in mind that you will want ready access to the plants for ongoing care. Sometimes it is best to hang pots no higher than eye level, depending on the location.

Also, the container need not be the typical plastic pot and attached saucer. The saucers often overflow, creating a mess, and the pots are usually very cheap in appearance. You might want to set a plain pot with drainage holes inside a more decorative pot or container without a drainage hole. You will avoid spills, and decorative containers can offer a broad range of textures and styles, which will enhance the overall appearance of your plants.

It is often useful to set plants into a soil-less medium to reduce weight, rather than relying on a heavier standard potting mix. Some soil-free mixes are specifically made for hanging plants and help conserve moisture and enhance aeration for growing roots.

When it is time to water your plants, it is preferable to actually take the plant down and water it in a sink, at least on occasion. This approach ensures complete drainage, and also allows you to inspect the plant more closely for pests while tending to damaged foliage, dead flowers, and other pruning chores. In addition, use this opportunity to thoroughly rinse off the foliage, removing potential pests and dust. In fact, removing dust actually increases the amount of light which can reach the leaf surface.

As for the plants, do not limit yourself to traditional selections. Common asparagus ferns are all well and good, but why not a look a bit further for a special cultivar like Emerald fern (Sprenger asparagus)? And why settle for plain green foliage when there are hundreds of variegated plant species which will give you bursts of gold, cream, and brilliant yellow, such as the popular Goldfish plant (Columnea microphylla)? Or substitute variegated Swedish ivy (Olectranthus coleoides 'Marginatus') for its lackluster cousin. Other interesting foliage plants, like the large-leafed Fittonias, feature either deep red veins (Mosaic Plant), or brilliant silver veins (Silver Net Plant).

Of course, entering the world of colorful foliage requires special attention to light exposure. Always select the proper plant for the proper location. For example, not all plants thrive in direct sun. Two varieties of Arrowhead vine (‘Emerald Gem' and ‘White Butterfly') are among the most beautiful trailing plants readily available. Given moisture and shade, they will thrive for years. But place them in too much light and they will literally fade away and die.

Location is not just a matter of sunlight and shade, however. One of the most intriguing hanging sedums, Burro's Tail (Sedum morganianum), has leaves or "pads" which are easily dislodged through handling. Such plants are best kept out of reach of children, pets, and tall human heads.

Hanging plants can offer colorful flowers in addition to exotic foliage. Christmas and Thanksgiving cactus are perhaps among the most used flowering indoor plants, although many garden centers also offer knock-outs like Lipstick vine (Aseschynathus radicans), which boasts profuse bright red tubular flowers, and Italian Bellflower (Campanula isophylla), an alpine perennial which does well in cooler indoor locations. One of the most unusual trailing plants is the Rat's-tail cactus (Aporocactus flagelliformis), an absolutely stunning cactus specimen with striking pink flowers. If you can recover from the unpalatable common name, you may find that this might be the only hanging plant you will ever need to impress friends and visitors.

Orchids, naturally, offer an amazing range of colors and growth habits, although they are a bit more temperamental than grape ivy. Devotees, nevertheless, will justifiably argue that the plants are worth all the extra care and attention. In fact, for sheer horticultural hubris, an upscale gardening concern offers an wrought-iron globe with built-in magnifier for displaying and viewing one's prized specimen.

On a more mundane level, bright kitchen windows provide an ideal environment for garden herbs. Culinary favorites like parsley, chives, and rosemary can do extremely well indoors, whether grown together as a miniature hanging garden or planted and cultivated separately.

The most important step you can take with hanging plants begins with selecting species most suited to your environment, including light, temperature, and humidity. But you should also select plants based on your personality. Choose something exotic, fun and different, if you enjoy caring for and exhibiting plants. If not, you can still add color and life to your living space by referring to the following list of dependable, time-proven favorites.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Reliable Hanging Plant Species

Asparagus fern
Basket begonia (Begonia tuberhybrida pendula)
Baby's tears (Soleirolia soleirolii)
Christmas/Thanksgiving cactus
Creeping fig (Ficus pumila)
Devil's Ivy (Epipremnum pinnatum)
Ferns (numerous species)
Grape ivy (Cissus rhombifolia)
Hoya (Wax plant)
Ivy species
Lipstick vine (Aeschynanthus pulcher)
Philodendron species
Pothos species
Rosary vine or Hearts Entangled (Ceropegia woodii)
Spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum)
Swedish ivy (Plectranthus oertendahlii)
Wandering Jew

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Paphs, Phals and Cats -- Oh My!

Orchids are perhaps the most exotic, breathtaking, and unique of all flowering plants. However, their frequent association with mist-shrouded jungle canopies has led many gardeners to think that growing them is beyond their everyday ability. Fortunately, you need not move to a remote tropical island or invest in a greenhouse to enjoy these fantastic jewels of nature.

If you can successfully grow indoor flowering plants, then you will happily find that there are scores of brilliant and affordable orchids to fit every situation and room in your home.

There are estimated to be between 30-40 thousand different species of orchids found in nature, and the incredible popularity of this plant family has led to the cloning and hybridization of more than a million different species. Finding the right plant to match the light level and wallpaper in your living room should not require a major expedition.

Over the years, orchid hobbyists and growers have found that several genera are quite easily grown under normal indoor conditions. For the most part, if you can provide lighting conditions similar to those required for African violets, such as bright east or west-facing windows, or a shaded southern window with no direct sun, you can provide a suitable light environment for most orchids. Even a sunny, southern exposure filtered with sheer curtains can be suitable for orchids requiring higher light levels.

Among the best plants for beginners with moderate light conditions are Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum, Miltonia and Miltoniopsis, with Paphiopedilum being the most tolerant of shady conditions, perhaps even a bright northern window. If somewhat brighter lighting conditions can be provided, prepare yourself for the showy and fragrant spectacle provided by Dendrobiums, Cattleyas, Oncidiums, and Brassias.

According to a survey by the American Orchid Society, the world’s largest plant society, Phalaenopsis have been selected as America’s favorite orchid, which is fitting as it is also considered to be the most easy to grow. Phalaenopsis are also known as moth orchids, because their sprays of wing-like blooms bear a striking resemblance to clusters of brilliantly colored moths perched upon a branch. Under proper indoor conditions, this native of tropical lowlands can provide blooms for up to eight months of the year, perhaps producing flower spikes twice each year.

Paphiopedilum are commonly called “Lady’s-slipper orchids,” thanks to their tell-tale flower “pouches,” and produce long lasting flowers along an upright spike or stem. The blooms themselves can last up to ten weeks and offer an array of pink, gold, white and lavender, often combined together in a single, stunning flower with darker shaded veins.

Cattleya are often larger plants with huge white, pink, or purple blossoms, traditionally thought of as corsage flowers. Generally larger “cats” will bloom once a year with flowers lasting up to three weeks, although some hybrids can last up to eight weeks under ideal conditions. However, the full-sized plant is often too large for most home conditions, and a generous number of miniature Cattleyas are available, often less than ten inches tall. The mini-cats are known to flower twice a year, with blooms lasting up to one month. Both large and small versions are fragrant when the blossom is fully open.

If fragrance is important, one of the most sweetly scented orchids is Oncidium 'Sharry Baby.' This prolific blooming plant is sometimes called – and marketed – as the "Chocolate Lover's Orchid." The one to two inch blooms, which can reportedly number over three hundred on a fully mature plant, are deep ruby red or mahogany and exude a rich and warm chocolate fragrance.

Brassias are among the most exotic looking orchids, although they are easy to grow and bring to flower, sometimes more than once a year. Commonly and aptly named the Spider Orchid, most of the popular hybrids produce hundreds of colorful spidery blooms on long, adventurous stems which can last up to one month.

Of course, there is more to raising any plant than simply picking out a pretty one and offering it a bright window. Remember that a large number of orchids come from tropical climates and prefer high humidity, usually anywhere from 50 to 60 percent or more, and sometimes up to 75 percent. Most homes usually remain in the 35-50 percent range during the winter.

In fact, with few exceptions, a great many orchid species are epiphytes, meaning that they live on or above a plant, usually in trees, and obtain moisture from the air itself or from rainfall running down the sides of their host plants. Short of hosing down your living room on a daily basis, potential orchid growers will have to increase the humidity around their plants using some form of humidity tray. Daily misting is generally not sufficient and is frequently impractical.

Perhaps the most simple type of humidity tray is a pan, even a cookie sheet, filled with pea gravel or pebbles. Orchids are placed on overturned saucers set atop the pebbles so that the orchid’s pot is never sitting in water. Water should be added to cover the pebbles on a regular basis, and replaced periodically. Evaporation from the pebbles will create a lush, humid environment around the plants, without turning the rest of your home into a sauna.

In addition to humidity, orchids will require watering and feeding. Remember that many of these tropical transplants are used to rain forest conditions, where they receive intermittent downpours, and so generally prefer a period where their growing medium is almost allowed to dry out between waterings. However, orchids should never be allowed to sit in soggy pots, which can lead to root rot and other diseases. Also, watering and misting should always take place in the morning, allowing leaves to dry before nightfall.

The growing medium itself is important. Many orchids are adapted to grow in soil-free conditions, which is why the majority of epiphytic species are cultivated in specialized orchid mixtures, usually consisting of varying grades of fir bark, poultry peat, perlite, and other additives. These beautiful tree huggers also obtain nutrients from debris washing over or falling onto their roots, and consequently will require frequent dilute feedings, from biweekly to monthly, depending on the individual plant and time of year.

Lastly, ensure that air can move around the plants readily, much like those balmy tropical breezes. Should you decide to keep a number of plants grouped together in a corner, you might want to consider using either a ceiling fan – or small tabletop fan – operating at a slow speed, just enough to keep the air circulating.

Naturally, the actual culture and care for each species of orchid is different with respect to potting media, feeding, humidity, and so forth, and you should rely on the careful directions which any conscientious grower or vendor will readily supply.

However, before ever purchasing that first, towering Dendrobium, canes waving aloft with large, brilliant sprays of flowers, you might want to contact an accomplished orchid grower or visit a public orchid show. You will discover that while there are many orchids perfect for your conditions, there are other genera, like Cymbidium, which simply require too much dedication and foster care.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Biohazards in Your Basement!

Be it ever so humble, there's no place as deadly as home. Well, that's not strictly true, even though most accidents occur in the home, including most auto accidents taking place within five miles of home sweet home. What a deathtrap! But seriously, the fact is that most of us still spend a considerable part of every day indoors. Safely tucked away in the family room or kitchen, few of us realize that we are being exposed to a host of potentially harmful biological pollutants, which in varying cases can cause mild discomfort, often confused with a simple lingering cold, or more severe illnesses with long-range health complications.

Looking around our homes, it might be hard to imagine that our pets, humidifiers, and carpeting can represent sources for biological contamination. In fact, for most people a damp towel or face cloth or a soggy bath mat produces nothing more than a sour smell, and
"contamination" is an extreme way of viewing that spot of unsightly mildew in the shower stall. However, many other individuals are highly susceptible to these pollutants, including the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people with respiratory problems such as
asthma, chronic allergies, and lung disease. For this at-risk community, biological pollutants deserve both attention and corrective action.

Contributors to contamination

Many of the causes of biological pollution are hard to avoid, even in the cleanest homes, and include everyday activities like cooking and showering, which result in the high moisture levels conducive to the spread and growth of mold, mildew, dust mites, and other unwanted guests, all of which can, in turn, lead to health complications. In fact, the "moisture connection" is one of the most widespread causes for contamination, although it is one of the easiest to remedy.

Among the other common sources are pollen, infectious agents like bacteria and viruses, microscopic dust mites living on household dust, cat saliva and other pet dander -- the tiny or microscopic scales from skin, hair and fur, and feathers. Macroscopic and generally hated agents include mice and rats, especially their protein-rich urine, and numerous insect pests. Cockroaches are bad enough, but even microscopic "flakes" from their dead bodies can cause significant distress for some people.

Allergists and respiratory specialists generally look at several major categories of health problems related to biological pollution, including allergic, infectious, and toxic reactions, although many are interrelated, especially as conditions favorable to one problem are advantageous to others, particularly where moisture, warmth, and humidity are involved.

An allergy is basically the immune system's response to an unwanted foreign substance or allergen, such as pollen or pet dander. In sensitive individuals, this response goes well beyond sniffling and sneezing and can take the form of a severe and even life-threatening overreaction. Upon entering the body, allergens prompt the body's immune system to produce millions of antibodies which attach themselves to cells throughout the body, ready and waiting for another "invasion" by that specific substance. When the allergen is detected, the antibodies trigger the cells to release chemicals called histamines to help destroy the allergens, although the allergic reaction can often pose more of a health threat than the allergen itself.

Infectious reactions or diseases are the handiwork of bacteria and viruses, and are easily spread via contaminated countertops, improperly cleaned cooking utensils, and through the air from person to person. Bacteria and viruses can also be brought into the home from the outdoors on dirty shoes or soiled clothing, or even by bringing plants inside from a garden or patio. Airborne diseases, which can also be spread via some ventilation systems, have also demonstrated a much higher viability in moist environments where they can survive until meeting up with a new host -- or victim.

Toxic reactions have started to receive a great deal more attention as discussions mount regarding sick building syndrome. Among the best known example is humidifier fever, brought about by toxins released by microorganisms and fungi thriving in poorly maintained or designed heating and cooling systems, both in large commercial properties and in some typical residential systems and home humidifier units.

Drying Out
While increased cleanliness, better cleaning habits, and air filters can help control some of the particulate contaminants in the home, there is no doubt that water and moisture play perhaps the most significant role in creating biological pollution. Standing or stagnant water, or water-damaged materials (wood, wallboard, carpeting or carpet pads) are breeding grounds for insects, bacteria, and other pests. Cold exterior wall surfaces, especially inside closets or behind furniture and bookcases, can experience condensation, thereby triggering fungal outbreaks of mold and mildew, along with their attendant allergens and toxins. And warm, moist conditions are ideal for dust mites, which represent a one of the most ubiquitous and potent allergens in most homes.

Unfortunately, this "muggy" indoor environment is fairly much the norm in the northern part of the U.S., where studies cited by the American Lung Association found that approximately 30-50 percent of all homes and large structures demonstrate a high relative humidity -- exceeding 50 percent. In addition, research found other signs of periodic dampness in these homes, often resulting from seasonal flooding, leaks, and so on.

Making Your Home Healthier
To prevent the rash of problems likely to result in a tropical household, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends that relative humidity be controlled to 30-50 percent, and that remedial steps be taken to better manage other sources of moisture. The following is a room-by-room recipe for a healthier home.

Basement: If carpeting is used on a concrete floor, install a vapor barrier (basically a plastic sheeting) to keep moisture from entering the carpet backing and fibers. Clean and dry water-damaged carpets within one day -- or consider replacing the carpet. Also, it might be advisable to simply use another flooring surface or removable area rugs. Check for and repair any sources of leaks or water damage, especially around windows and exterior stairwells. Increase air circulation and consider using a dehumidifier in damp sublevels, and be sure to frequently drain (every day) and clean the "evaporation tray" or collection reservoir.

Kitchen: Install and use an exhaust fan -- or at least open a window -- when cooking, hand-washing dishes, or using a dishwasher, etc., to vent moisture to the outdoors. Do not rely on the all-too-common rangetop hoods which simply filter cooking particulates. Periodically check, empty, and thoroughly clean refrigerator drip pans; check for moldy gaskets and clean or replace them. Carefully clean all food preparation areas and utensils. However, exercise caution when using various cleaning products; do not mix different types of cleaning agents. Consider using an effective organic or botanically-derived alternative. Clean and rinse sponges and frequently change dish towels since disease pathogens are sometimes spread by cleaning with contaminated cleaning aids; use a different sponge for each different cleaning chore. Clean all damp surfaces in the kitchen.

Utility Room: Vent dryers and consider using an exhaust fan when washing laundry. "Air dry" wet laundry outdoors.

Bathrooms: Use an exhaust fan to vent moisture or open a window. Replace and clean towels and bathmats regularly. Clean and dry surface areas thoroughly; use the same amount care as with kitchen sanitation, especially since many bathroom cleaners contain caustic chemicals and release harmful vapors. Remove, vigorously clean, or replace moldy shower or window curtains.

Bedrooms: Individuals with a low tolerance for dust and dander should avoid down-filled pillows and comforters, and should use allergenic-proof mattress pads, as well as foam rubber and other synthetic bedding materials. Further, bedclothes should be frequently laundered with hot water reaching 130 degrees or more.

Attics and Crawl Spaces: Check areas for leaks or water damage, provide exterior venting and improve air circulation. Cover the dirt "flooring" of crawl spaces under the house with a vapor barrier to keep out moisture and control pest infiltration.

General Household: Improve overall air circulation by ensuring that fresh air can enter the house via air exchangers or by opening windows; move furniture away from exterior walls; and leave doors into rooms partially open most of the time, including closet doors -- paying special attention to closets with exterior walls. Remove all traces of mold through cleaning; do not simply paint or wallpaper over damaged areas. Change or clean air filters for heating and cooling systems regularly, including window air conditioners, whose evaporation trays should also be examined and cleaned periodically. If a central humidifier is being used, carefully observe the recommended maintenance schedule; with portable units, change water as directed and clean all water-contact surfaces. Dusting and vacuuming can be torture for sensitive individuals, as the act of cleaning often stirs up a universe of mite allergens and other contaminants. Highly allergic people should leave areas (or homes) being cleaned; others should wear a protective mask, and use a dampened cloth or sponge-mop for cleaning. Vacuum and dust often to remove surface dust and reduce dust mite habitat. A central vacuum system is advisable for the acutely sensitive, although rather costly. Other extreme measures can include replacing wall-to-wall carpeting with washable area rugs and replace window blinds or delicate shades with washable curtains.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser

Monday, August 18, 2014

Tut, Tut: The Secrets of Papyrus

In recent years, ornamental grasses have become de rigueur for most modern garden designs. They are graceful, tall, and elegant – rather much the Audrey Hepburn of horticulture. But how can we translate this vertical effect to our indoor gardening environment? The solution comes replete with a rich and stunning history dating back to the ancient Nile, Pharaohs, Egyptian gods, and Moses in the bulrushes. Welcome to papyrus, one of the most important plants in early human civilization.

Papyrus (Cyperus papyrus), is undoubtedly the most famous member of the genus Cyperus (kupeiros is Greek for sedge), which is comprised of some 4,000 to 5,000 species, several of which are well-suited for indoor and outdoor pond gardens. The species name papyrus derives from the Egyptian word meaning “that which belongs to the house,” where house alludes to the ancient ruling body or bureaucracy.

Papyrus is, of course, the source for our word paper, and was also the plant used to produce sheets of paper for thousands of years, beginning as early as 4,000 BC. In fact, a thriving and vital trade existed for this writing material until about the third century AD, when it was found easier to produce paper from plant pulp, in a process introduced into the Middle East from China via Arab traders. Papyrus-paper also faced competition from Europe and the Near East in the form of parchment or vellum, which was made from animal skins, such as calf or sheep (hence getting your diploma or “sheepskin”). Papyrus continued to be manufactured and used in ever-decreasing amounts until the 11th century.

Interestingly, the plant itself all but disappeared from Egypt during the 20th century, due to dams on the Nile and other unsustainable practices. The plants were reintroduced into the area around Cairo from thriving native plant stock in Ethiopia and the Sudan in the late 1960s by Dr. Hassan Ragab, an Egyptian inventor and scientist, who also rediscovered a method for creating papyrus, which has now reemerged as a high-end novelty product and specialty paper.

Papyrus was, however, much more than an everyday paper product. Ancient Egyptians would also use the soft pith of the stem as a foodstuff, cooked and processed like sugar cane, or eaten raw. Ancient pharmacologists, like Galen and Dioscorides, cataloged a wide variety of medicinal uses for infusions made from the plant. Egyptians also harvested and dried the woody rhizomes and culms to use as a fuel – whose ashes were also medicinal! Garlands were woven from the graceful flower heads to adorn the shrines of the gods, and for funeral observances. The stylized representation of the papyrus inflorescence, or umbel, is a central motif in the art of the period, akin to the lotus motif in Eastern art. Fibrous strands taken from the stem of the plant were used to weave sandals, ropes, plaited fans, mats, wrapping materials, and to produce, oh yes, baskets.

Lest we forget, the basket into which Mariam and Jochebed placed the infant Moses to escape the infanticide decree of Pharaoh was woven from papyrus stems. And, as you think of sister Mariam watching the basket float along the Nile and nestle into the bulrushes, keep in mind that bulrush is but another common name for papyrus. Holy Moses!

Today, papyrus can find a ready welcome far from the subtropical banks of the Nile, especially as there are closely related species of sedge which can readily fit into a water garden, pond, or even into an attractive indoor container. Actually, the true papyrus species is overwhelming, and might be more bulrush than you can handle. Under ideal conditions, Cyperus papyrus can grow between 12 and 15 feet tall, with stems approaching six inches in diameter, although most gardeners report that indoors the plant only reaches eight feet. Still, that might be a bit much for the average family room. And don’t forget that all of the papyrus-like species originated in tropical and subtropical climes, and will need to be relocated indoors before the first frost.

A species suitable for the average backyard water feature is dwarf papyrus or miniature cyperus (Cyperus prolifer), which will stay upright and well-ordered at no more than 12 to 36 inches. Like most Cyperus, the plant thrives in full sun and likes to sit in water. Pretty ideal, having a plant that cannot be overwatered! This species can also take light to partial shade in the yard, or will purr happily in a sunny indoor window.

Pygmy Egyptian papyrus (C. haspan) has a sparkling appearance much like a bright green feather duster. It will top out at about 18 inches, and feels at home in a pot filled with a rich, loose soil mix, which is then placed in a second larger container filled with water – or set into an outdoor pond.

My personal favorite Cyperus species actually hails from Madagascar, and while it bears some overall resemblance to papyrus, its leaves are thicker and lie in a flat plane, which easily led to its common name, umbrella plant (C. alternifolius).

Umbrella plant can grow to five feet or more indoors, and slightly larger outdoors, although three to five feet is more common. Another sedge, it has a triangular stem, whose shape lends structure support to keep the stem upright in strong winds, perhaps faring better than the average umbrella. It also loves to sit in water day after day.

In fact, many of us who fancy the plant actually grow it in nothing more than a cachepot or sealed container filled with water, and lined with rocks on the bottom to help stabilize plant roots. In this hydroponic setting, it’s important to fertilize somewhat regularly, especially during active growing and flowering periods. But don’t mind the flowers: nothing much exciting there, mostly a bland, tan, oat-shaped affair.

Like most sedges, umbrella plants can be propagated by dividing the substantial root masses or clumps of rhizomes, keeping the outer, younger sections for replanting, and composting the older core. Although a much more entertaining method, of which I have not tired in more than 20 years, calls for cutting off the top six inches of a stem of the plant, leaves and all, and inverting the whole into a glass or vase of water. After a few weeks, roots will form around the junction of leaves and stem, and new shoots will emerge growing up, out of the water. When well-established, carefully plant the rooted cutting into a loose soil mix and keep well watered – or immersed. You can also continue to let the plant grow in water alone.

For the record, several plants gracing the bookcases in my office are descendants from several cuttings given to me in 1979. They have, over the years, produced huge clumps of plants for my rooftop garden, and smaller, discrete potted specimens for windowsills. Scores have been propagated and given to friends and curious visitors. And the tradition lives on.

Like the Egyptian papyrus alternatives, umbrella plants are available in compact and dwarf varieties, such as sparkler grass (C. alternifolius gracilis) under 18 inches with delicate, narrow leaves, as well as in a related variegated form (C. diffusus variegatus), where both leaves and stems are striped with a touch of creamy white against a wide, light green leaf.

Whether you’re striking out to honor Osiris, or print your own Book of the Dead on homemade papyrus, or maybe just add a little excitement to your parlor window with a dwarf ‘Nana’ umbrella plant, you can find just the right plant through online sources year-round, while many fine garden centers sell potted specimens in their water garden section.

Copyright 2014, Joseph M. Keyser