Saturday, 27 April 2013

Cyperus alternifolius (umbrella plant)


Umbrella plant stems
We should have known as soon as the landlord asked whether we were sure we wanted  pints. No publican in his right mind is going to minimise a sale if he can, so there had to be a good reason. However, we weren't kids - we could hold a few pints without becoming a problem to anyone. So we were adamant: a pint each of the special brew if you don't mind, landlord. And from here it developed to three pints before we stood up  to go.

Tony and I had recently taken up cycling. A couple of weeks previously we had ridden, with his teenage son,   to a pub in the Cheshire countryside. It had been enjoyable, the only questionable incident occurring when I had spotted a heron next to a garden pond and pulled the party to a rapid stop.

"Look", I said. bending to peer through a gap in the hedge, "that's a heron. Tremendous fishermen, herons. See how perfectly still he is - until he strikes". The three of us squinted through the hedge for a couple of minutes, while I impressed them with my ornithological expertise. Until then Mark, the teenage son, had been under the impression that ornithology was something to do with the male sex drive, and the teacher within me  wanted to broaden his horizons. Tony was nodding sagely when Mark burst the bubble with typical teenage cynicism:

"You daft buggers - it's plastic! - to scare away the real ones".

I smiled my 'you've spotted the deliberate mistake' smile and we rode on to the accompaniment of sarcastic teenage comments along the lines of the heron 'obviously being on the look-out for plastic koi carp' and 'amazing how still he can stand', while I considered ways of limiting our next ride to the more mature among us. It was around then that I began to develop my theory of the application of cryogenics to teenagers - freeze the buggers at thirteen and thaw 'em out at twenty one, when there may be a chance of there being the odd occasion when their parents know better than them.

And that's how this situation worked out - just Tony and myself.

The special brew didn't have any noticable effect until we stepped outside The Eagle in Lymm. At this point it made up for lost time. I remember looking at the road and marvelling at its fluidity - like an earthquake without the cracks. Tony was going through a similar experience but it was only when he rode his bike into a lamp post that we realised the questionable nature of going back along the main road. The mobility of that lamp post reminded me of the stories of car insurance claims where 'the tree jumped out and hit me' and seemed to give them some credence. It was then that we decided it'd be wiser to ride home along the canal bank. It seems that Wisdom, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

The Bridgewater canal is a sort of storage depot for shopping trolleys and dead dogs. I don't know what the statistics are for dogs dying in the Altrincham area but I do know where they end up, so the lure of a swim was not great. For this reason we amazingly managed not to fall in, which is not to say we didn't fall off, but we restricted ourselves to the brambles on the side of the towpath away from the water. Our progress was very slow and the brambles ensured that it was fairly bloody but eventually we left the canal and drew close to our house at about two o'clock in the morning.

"You'd better come in and have a coffee", I said, "it'll sober you up a bit for the extra ride. He had a further three miles to go.

We got to the front door and I fumbled for my keys. They weren't there. I have a history with keys. The people at work bought me a six inch key fob with the inscription 'only an idiot could lose me' and, when that didn't work, one that answered a whistle. Then they gave up. On this occasion I remembered that I'd left them in my other trousers - locked in the house. This left me in a bit of a quandry because my wife isn't keen on being woken up, especially at two oclock in the morning.

"Don't worry Tone", I said, "leave it with me, everything's under control" - a phrase that has been known to raise fear in the hearts of the bravest - and we crept off into the back garden. When I looked up at the bedroom window the light was out but the vent window was open. "Just as I thought", I said, "easy peesy ".

There's a single story extension on the rear of our house and our bedroom window looks onto its flat roof. Tony gave me a leg up and, in no time, I'd climbed up, then  proceeded to go through the little window at the top. I had to go head first, putting my head on one side to get it through.. It was a tight fit but I reckoned that I could put my hands on the window ledge and ease myself down without waking my wife. I was halfway through this procedure, when the phone rang downstairs.

I could see my wife lying on the bed about three feet away. When the phone rang, she suddenly sat up straight and rigid, the way a zombie in a horror film does it. I'm not sure whether her eyes were open but she swung her legs out of bed and walked towards the door in a trance-like state. At one point her face was only two feet away from mine as I hung upside down from the top of the window. I was about to say a breezy "hi", or "surprise, surprise", but neither seemed to really fit. In fact I couldn't think of a precedent for this particular situation that wouldn't result in her hitting the ceiling, so I just hung around until she'd gone. A few seconds later I heard her answer the phone. It was Jacqui, Tony's wife, ringing to see if we'd arrived home. At this point I fell into the bedroom, nearly castrating myself on that bit of metal that sticks up for hooking the window open. Then I whispered (a few decibels higher than my usual whisper) back to Tony, telling him his better half was on the phone and that he should go and ring the doorbell while my wife was downstairs. As I got to the bottom of the stairs, she was opening the door in answer to Tony's ring.

Tony is a man of words - never lost for them. However, confronted by my wife's indignant fury, he failed dismally. He told me afterwards that he'd been rehearsing all the reasonable, intelligent reasons for arriving on the doorstep at two in the morning, but when my face appeared over my wife's shoulder he froze. All he could think of to say was "tee-hee, you'll never guess who's behind you".  So much for the great intellectual.

She turned and just looked at me for a good few seconds. If this were a bible story, I'd be a pillar of salt or something, then she simply pushed past me muttering something in a hollow voice about Jacqui wanting Tony on the phone, and went back to bed.
Trim to fit container

And all this talk about the canal brings water to mind, together with a plant called Cyperus alternifolius (umbrella plant). It's a popular house plant here but its native African habitat is the banks of slow moving rivers and lakes. Its stems reach optimum height, then  the weight of the leaves causes them to bend, so that the foliage makes contact with the surface of the water. At this point, new roots are formed, sending up a further stem which repeats the process. In this way it forms rafts over large tracts of water.
Place in water
Roots begin to grow

The useful part in knowing this is that it tips us off on how to propagate it. Simply cut off a stem top and immerse it in a jam-jar of water in a reasonably warm room and it will quickly begin to perform, leaving you with another pot plant. If armed with the knowledge of its background, growing it on is a matter of common sense: simply pot it up and stand it permanently in a saucer or ceramic container of water. Those puny twelve inch  examples of it often to be seen on people's sideboards are usually due to the fact that they are kept in dry conditions.

People grow Cyperus in pond margins with great success but it has to be born in mind that they are not fully hardy and extreme weather conditions can kill them. The best thing is to bring them into shelter during the winter. Having said this, a friend of mine has grown his outside for years and it seems to thrive, so I suppose as each garden has its own microclimate, so you may just get away with it.

New stems emerge
Its actually possible to be too successful in getting growing conditions just right, because a well-grown plant can reach six foot in height. this means you may have to raise the ceiling or have an exceptionally low sideboard. Its other common name is umbrella papyrus which refers to the fact it is related to Cyperus papyrus, the plant used by the Egyptians to make papyrus, the forerunner of paper, as far back as the third millenium BC. And on that extremely useful note, I'm going to do a bit of gardening.


  1. Thanks for the follow, John. I appreciate it very much!

    I'm going to learn a lot from you, I can tell. Already I learned something new, about the umbrella plant. Never heard of such method of propagation before.

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