Although it somewhat resembles a cactus, it is not related to a cactus at all, but instead, is related to the flowers in the lily family. The plant stands about 2 meters tall with strong, narrow leaves that shoot out from the above ground root as it forms a rosette in appearance.
This plant produces a sturdy fiber known as sisal that is used for a variety of products. Some of the uses for sisal fibers are ropes, twine, paper, dartboards, filters, mattresses, wall coverings and carpets. This is not to be confused with the Agave Teguilana species or Blue Agave. That particular species is where we get the popular spirit known as tequila and the ever growing in popularity organic sweetener.
Originally, it was thought that the Agave Sisalana plant came from Yucatan, but there are no records of botanical collections from that area, so its actual origin is unknown. The Agave Sisalana plant is a sterile hybrid plant whose developer remains a mystery to this day. Botanical scientists speculate that it is a cross combination of the Agave Angustifolia and the Agave Kewensis.
During the 19th Century, the plant was cultivated in Florida, Brazil, certain African countries, Asia and the Caribbean Islands. During the 1930’s, Brazil began to grow Agave Sisalana for the commercial production of the sisal fibers and in 1948, sisal fibers began to be exported to other countries. Brazil is the largest producer of sisal fibers.
Agave Sisalana plants live for 7-10 years and during their lifetime will produce between 200-250 leaves suitable for commercial use. The sisal fiber removal process involves crushing and beating the leaves in a rotating wheel until only the fibers remain. This process is called decortications. After the fiber has been extracted, it is dried, brushed and then baled before exporting.
The dryer the fiber, the higher the quality the fiber will be. As a result, some producers have set up artificial means of drying sisal fibers, but this is not always possible in developing countries. Superior quality sisal fibers are used in the making of carpet.
The waste material that results from processing the Agave Sisalana plant creates a pollution problem in the rivers and lakes near production, so Tanzania’s Common Fund for Commodities has agreed to invest $100 million dollars over the next five years to develop added-value strategies for African farmers, including a project to turn sisal fiber waster into biofuel.
Some controversy exists with regard to the “green” status of sisal farming, because it replaces native forests. However, it is less damaging to the environment than some other types of farming, since it utilizes no chemical fertilizers during production and most farmers weed sisal crops by hand instead of using herbicides.