Close your eyes and imagine warm nights along the Nile. Papyrus reeds line the shores, thriving in the shallows that border a brutally dry desert. Their pom-pom heads set high upon tall stalks rustle in the gentle winds that cool Pharaoh’s open terrace along the water. Here the plants became epic, etched in stone of palace and tomb – a symbol of life in the heat.

Papyrus in pond

Papyrus is among the largest of all water garden plants, giving it a unique ability to transform an ordinary pond into an exotic oasis.

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Water jar

This large-mouth ceramic pot is home to a young papyrus plant that lends an exotic look to this Moroccan-style secret garden.

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Papyrus heads

Some gardeners thin their papyrus plants to reveal individual fluffy heads and increase overall transparency for a “see-through” effect.

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

Papyrus colony

If left to its own devices, papyrus develops dense colonies of stems that help them stand up to wind damage.

Photo Credit: Maureen Gilmer

When my clients want this same romance for their warm-season gardens, I return time and again to papyrus (Cyperus papyrus). With long, straight stems that can reach 8 feet tall at maturity topped by their beautiful fluffy heads, it’s big enough to make an immediate visual difference in outdoor living areas. And when the breeze ruffles these fine textures, it really brings the garden to life. Unlike most water plants sold in quarts, papyrus is grown as a landscape plant in 2- or 5-gallon containers. Sold when they reach 5 feet tall or higher, they create an instant effect without waiting a day for maturity. Although they cost more at this size, the overnight change for porch or patio is worth every penny. For a party or special event, there’s really nothing better.

In addition to looking great instantly, papyrus is really adaptable. It thrives equally in standing water or dry ground (in any type of soil). If you buy it in a large size, the plant was grown as a dryland plant. That means you’ll need to adapt it to your water garden by adding a thick layer of gravel or pebbles atop the pot’s soil to prevent particles and woody matter from floating away. The plant can also be top-heavy in the water, so weight the pot rim with bricks or other heavy objects to keep it from blowing over.

Of course, there are a few caveats to consider before you plunge into your Egyptian fantasy. First, papyrus is a tropical plant, so the big ones aren’t often in the stores until about June (depending on where you live). If you live in a colder climate, consider your papyrus an annual to dispose of at season’s end – or let it die back in fall and overwinter the dormant nursery pot in a sheltered location that’s dark, cool and won’t freeze. (Even if you overwinter, shorter seasons don’t really allow enough time for papyrus to achieve the same stature and lushness as new greenhouse-grown plants.)

You also need to make sure your papyrus gets full sun. Without it, the stalks become weak and flop. And do plant them in areas protected from strong winds – like courtyards and enclosed patios. They’re not very wind-tolerant, but the larger your papyrus clump, the more collective support the mass will have to withstand strong breezes.

If you live in a warmer climate and plant your papyrus in the ground, it’ll spread by thick underground rhizomes much like bamboo. Over time it’ll develop a dense colony, so you may prefer to thin out the stems so you can catch glimpses of any garden beyond, as well as enhance your night lighting. If you grow your papyrus in pots, divide the root ball every year or two, pruning back any over-adventurous rhizomes. The mother plant will become more vigorous, and the cuttings can be repotted or planted elsewhere.

If you’re looking to add a neat and instant Egyptian effect to your garden, try this trick I used on TV for creating a Moroccan-style garden in a forgotten side yard: Purchase rustic-looking ceramic pots imported from Asia or Mexico big enough to contain a 5-gallon nursery pot. (If you select a taller pot, you can add greater height and visibility to your papyrus.) Pick a sunny location, and stack bricks inside the pot until your papyrus sits at the proper height, then fill the whole thing with water. Not only do you get an elegant columnar plant that instantly changes the character of your space, you need only keep the jar full to satisfy the papyrus.

So if you’d like to add an elegant, exotic element to your garden, look no further than papyrus. All you need is a sunny spot and a gorgeous pot for an instant makeover with timeless appeal.