Papyrus, p$a-pī'rŭs, an aquatic plant. Papyrus is a straight, tough, tall, reedlike plant that grows in shallow water. Its leaves, which grow from the base of the plant and sheathe the lower part of the stem, reach a height of three to four feet (90 to 120 cm). The stem, which bears no leaves, grows up to 15 feet (4.6 m) high. The flowers are borne in fanlike clusters at the top of the stem. The papyrus plant is native to southern Europe, northern Africa, and Asia Minor.
Throughout the ages papyrus plants have had many uses. They have been planted as ornamentals and used to thatch roofs and build fences. The roots and stems have been eaten as vegetables. The stems have also been used in boatbuilding and to weave rope, baskets, and mats. More notably, however, the stem of the papyrus plant was used in ancient times for paper.
Strips cut lengthwise from the pith of the stem were laid side by side on a flat surface. A second layer was spread at right angles to the first. The sheet thus formed was subjected to pressure and a natural mucilage contained in the pith caused the pieces to adhere. The sheets were then pounded and rubbed to make them smooth. When pasted together end to end, the sheets formed rolls on which books were written.
The oldest books known are written on rolls of papyrus. Some Egyptian manuscripts written on papyrus about 4,000 years ago have been found. Greek and Roman manuscripts have also been discovered. Papyrus and, later, parchment made from animal skins were widely used until they were replaced by paper in medieval times. National museums in Cairo, London, and Berlin have large collections of papyrus manuscripts, or papyri.
Although some papyri were found earlier, many thousands were discovered during the 19th and the early 20th century. These manuscripts include business documents, personal letters, music, and literature, and yield a wealth of information to archeologists.
Papyrus is Cyperus papyrus of the sedge family, Cyperaceae.