Creature Feature: Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus)
By Elizabeth Cychosz, CG Science
In the search for an eco-friendly lifestyle, one plant with versatility and weed-like resilience stands to answer the question.
Kenaf, or Hibiscus cannabinus, is native to West Africa but can be found in Athens at the West State Street Research Site gardens. It towers over the surrounding vegetation, reaching an average of 12 to 14 feet in height after only four to five months of growth. A relative of cotton and okra, kenaf has a long, commonly green stem that is decorated with tender shoots and leaves of various shapes and size. Large, cream-colored flowers bloom only in the fall, and each individual flower lives for a day before fading.
Although the leaves can be eaten by humans, it is the stem that most interests researchers. It is comprised of 40 percent bast (outer bark) and 60 percent core fibers. The core, which has the consistency of balsa wood, is often used in animal bedding and packing materials. Bast is often used for cords and textiles, such as rope or burlap, because its rough texture is not conducive to comfortable garments. It can also be transformed into pulp, which opens the door to many opportunities.
During World War II, the United States Department of Agriculture began looking for new sources of paper when its supply of jute from Asia was cut off. Selecting it from among 500 other candidates, kenaf was identified in the 1960s as “the best non-wood paper alternative.” Bast pulp is much more supple than typical wood sources, and that means it can be treated with more eco-friendly chemicals. Because of its rapid growth and high yield, the average kenaf field is three to five times more productive than for Southern pine trees.
Researchers have discovered that kenaf is excellent for papermaking, because it is stronger, cheaper and holds onto ink with better quality than normal paper. Major companies such as Apple, Warner Bros. and Kinkos use or have options for kenaf paper in their printings.
- Kenaf grows best in tropical or subtropical climates, but it can grow in the Midwest during the warmer months.
- The plant is typically green, but it can also be red or purple. It is 12 to 14 feet tall, on average, but can grow up to 20 feet in height.
- It is resilient like a weed to chemicals and pests, but it does not dominate a region on its own.