Monday, 29 September 2008


On Sunday I did a posting about a Reedmace which prompted GB to comment that they were what he had thought of as Bulrushes – so what was a Bulrush?

That is one of the worst of all possible questions to try to answer! The Reedmaces (Typha species - of which there are two in this country) are not found in Egypt so they are definitely ‘out’ as far as Moses and his Bulrushes are concerned. This family was once almost always called reedmace but became known as bulrush (or sometimes bull-rush) after a painting by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. His Moses in the Bulrushes allegedly showed the baby in a basket among plants which are clearly of the genus Typha. (Interestingly – I can’t see anything but Delphiniums on the version on the internet; which is also printed facing both ways...!) After that, the name bulrush, formerly applied almost exclusively to Scirpus (or Schoenoplectus) lacustris attached itself to Typha latifolia (and lesser bulrush to T. angustifolia).

Scirpus (or Schoenoplectus) lacustris – the 'proper' Bulrush – is also known as the Common Club-rush or Common Club-sedge and it is not a rush. It is a member of the sedge family. It reaches a metre tall and grows in slow-moving rivers and lakes. Here you might think the question was answered but, oh no!, there is more to come.

The species of British rush commonly known as Bulrush by many people are the Soft Rush (Juncus effusus) and Hard Rush (Juncus inflexus) which look very similar and are very common in damp grassy places (the former being mainly lowland and Southern and the latter mainly mountains and Northern). They are found throughout Europe and in N Africa. But they grow on the land (admittedly often marshy – rather than in the river itself and aren’t deep enough to hide a decent size shopping trolley – or Moses basket!

And, as if that were not enough, we have the generally accepted theory in Egypt that Moses was found in his basket among Cyperus papyrus - The Egyptian Paper Plant. This is the true papyrus of antiquity used for paper-making thousands of years ago. I haven’t got a photo of the plant itself but if you haven’t fallen asleep by now you can see it by Googling it...

So, GB, whichever species you call Bulrush there’ll be people happy to argue with you. Personally, I try to avoid the word altogether!


  1. Who was it said "Well I only asked!"?

  2. On a recent walk I corrected someone (who shall be nameless), when she was commenting on the Bulrushes. The water plants with the distinctive brown cigar shaped seed heads are not Bulrushes but Reedmace. There is the Bible story of Moses being discovered in the Bulrushes, this was already an error in translation, as of course it would have been Papyrus. In 1904 the artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema allegedly painted “Moses in the Bulrushes” which was reproduced in Sunday-School books. Disastrously, he is blamed for painting Reedmace instead of the less than impressive Bulrush, thereby teaching thousands of young minds the wrong name. However it seems that an innocent man may have been wrongly blamed. His 1904 painting “The Finding of Moses” does not show Reedmace at all. But a widely distributed 1901 Bible Card, by an anonymous illustrator, which was at given away at Sunday-Schools for many years, does indeed show the dreaded Reedmace.

  3. Dear Anon, I never knew about the Bible card that explains a lot! Thanks for the information, most interesting.


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