What is Cyperaceae?

Rebecca Cartwright

Cyperaceae is the scientific name for a family of flowering plants in the order Poales. The Cyperaceae family is the 10th largest plant family on Earth. Most species in the family grow in damp to wet areas. The common name for the Cyperaceae family is sedge, which is the common name of many species. Other common species names include "rush" and "bulrush."

Cyperaceae are also known as bullrushes, and are often found in marshy areas.
Cyperaceae are also known as bullrushes, and are often found in marshy areas.

Members of the Cyperaceae family grow worldwide. Though some species grow in forests and other relatively dry settings, the most common environments for Cyperaceae species are marshes, bogs and other wetlands, and along rivers and lakes. They are often the dominant species in these areas. The greatest variety grows in the tropics and in temperate areas, but Cyperaceae species occur as far north as the sub-Arctic. In regions where sedges and rushes are widespread, they are an important source of food and shelter for wildlife and play a vital role in stabilizing soil with their roots.

Papyrus plants grow along the Nile, and were once used to make paper.
Papyrus plants grow along the Nile, and were once used to make paper.

Most species in this family resemble grasses. Many have solid triangular stems with leaves arranged around the stem in sets of three. The leaves are straplike and upright. Flowers, which grow in groups on spikelets, are inconspicuous. Fruits are typically three-sided, dry and contain only one seed.

Rushes and sedges played a large role in ancient and indigenous cultures, providing raw material for a host of items including woven baskets, sandals and even roofs and houses. Cyperus papyrus, or papyrus, which grows along the Nile, was tremendously important in the economy of ancient Egypt. Another species, Schoenoplectus californicus, or California bulrush, provided raw material for boats and floating islands on Lake Titicaca in Peru.

Papyrus is still an important fuel source in Egypt and northern Africa. Domestic cultivars of the yellow nut sedge are a food crop, and the water chestnut of Chinese cuisine is another sedge tuber. Sedge and rush species make good choices for riverbank stabilization and reclamation of wetlands. Wastewater processing facilities grow some members of the family in treatment ponds and tanks, where the plants remove excess nutrients from the water.

Cyperaceae family members include a number of widely spread weeds that cause economically significant problems in crops and pastureland. Some consider the purple nut sedge, Cyperus rotundus, the world’s worst weed because it infests cropland throughout the tropics and warmer temperate regions. Wild varieties of yellow nut sedge are a widespread problem in cooler regions.

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