Prota 16: Fibres/Plantes à fibres
Anal. Cienc. Nat. 4: 123 (1801).
2n = 20
Abaca, abacá, Manila hemp (En). Abaca, chanvre de Manille, bananier à fibres (Fr). Cânhamo-de-manila (Po).
Origin and geographic distribution
Abaca is native to the Philippines and northern Indonesia. Until the 1920s little or no commercial cultivation existed outside of the Philippines, but since then it has been successfully cultivated in other South-East Asian countries as well as in Central America and Ecuador. In tropical Africa it has been grown in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea (Bioko), Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, but at present it seems to be grown in Equatorial Guinea and Kenya only.
Abaca fibre extracted from the leaf sheath of Musa textilis is principally used for specialty papers and cordage. It has long been the preferred fibre for marine and fishing cordage due to its strength and resistance to saltwater, but this use has diminished with the advent of synthetic rope fibres. Nowadays the main use of abaca fibre is for pulp and paper. It is used for making a range of products including teabags, banknotes, filter paper, sausage casings, capacitor paper, cigarette paper, and the well-known Manila envelope paper (which was traditionally made from old abaca ropes). The fibre is suitable for textiles after it has been cottonized, a process in which fibre strands are cut to a uniform length so that they can be spun in cotton-spinning equipment. The fibre is used in high-end fabrics, particularly in blends with silk or pineapple fibre (Ananas comosus (L.) Merr.). Abaca fibre is also used in fibre crafts such as baskets, table mats, hammocks, bags and footwear. The fibre is finding increasing use in manufactured construction materials such as wallboards, floor and roof tiles, and as a reinforcing fibre in asphalt and concrete. It is also used in plastic composites in automobile bodies as a substitute for fibreglass reinforcement.
The dried entire outer leaf sheath is used in manufacturing ceiling boards and wallpaper, as well as for trays, baskets, wall panelling, and place mats. The inner leaf sheaths are used for roofing and for shading nursery seedlings, and as plates and food containers. Abaca ribbons are used as decorative and packaging material. The leaves are used as food wrapping, as animal fodder, or pulped for paper.
The sap of abaca is used in traditional Philippine medicine to treat wounds by inducing blood clotting.
Production and international trade
According to FAO estimates the average annual world production of abaca fibre in 2001–2005 was about 99,000 t. Major producers were the Philippines with an average annual production of about 69,000 t (from an average area of about 120,000 ha) and Ecuador with about 28,000 t (from about 20,000 ha). Minor producers were Costa Rica (1100 t from 1100 ha), Indonesia (600 t from 600 ha), Equatorial Guinea (500 t from 1800 ha) and Kenya (30 t from an unknown area). The annual production in the Philippines was fairly stable, but in Ecuador the production increased from 25,000 t in 2001 to 29,000 t in 2005, and the estimated area under abaca increased from 17,000 ha in 2001 to more than 22,000 ha in 2005. The producer price per ton of abaca fibre in 2001–2005 increased from US$ 309 to US$ 596 in the Philippines, and from US$ 429 to US$ 583 in Ecuador. In the Philippines production is primarily by smallholders, while in Ecuador an estate system dominates.
The main exporter in 2001–2005 was the Philippines, with an average annual export of abaca products of 44,000 t, of which 15,000 t fibre, 7000 t cordage, 19,000 t pulp and 3000 t other products. The main importers were the United Kingdom and Japan.
The primary fibre (commercial grade) is obtained from the vascular bundles of the outer layer of the leaf sheath. The middle layer contains a small amount of weak secondary fibre, and the innermost layer contains no fibre. The fibre strands of commerce are 1–3.5 m long bundles of fibre cells. The ultimate fibre cells are (2–)4–8(–12) mm long and (6–)13–29(–53) μm in diameter, with a lumen width of (1–)7–14(–33) μm and a cell wall thickness of (1–)4.5(–16) μm. They taper gradually to a pointed or rounded end. Irregular ends are rare. In general the tips are much finer and more pointed than those of sisal (Agave sisalana Perrine). Very fine dislocations and cross-markings are often present. The cross-section of the fibre cells is an oval or a rounded polygon of 5–6 sides. Abaca fibre contains 55–64% α-cellulose, 18–23% hemicelluloses, 5–18% lignin, 1% pectin, and 1–3% ash.
Abaca fibre is classified among the hard fibres, like sisal. It is remarkable for its strength and resistance to fresh and salt water. It has a tensile strength of 850–1400 N/mm², an elongation at break of 8–12% and a modulus of elasticity of c. 72 GPa. It is three times as strong as cotton (Gossypium spp.) fibre, twice as strong as sisal, and also stronger than hemp (Cannabis sativa L.) and sunn hemp (Crotalaria juncea L.). It is more resistant to salt water than most other vegetable fibres. Commercial abaca fibre ranges from almost pure white, through cream to light or dark brown, depending on cultivar, position of the sheath in the pseudostem, and fibre extraction and processing.
Abaca fibre is excellent raw material for specialty papers. Compared to wood, the ultimate fibres are longer and finer, and abaca has lower lignin, ash, silica and extractive contents, and a higher total cellulose content, all of which contribute to high pulp yield and low consumption of chemicals in the pulping and bleaching treatments. It also has a high pentosan content, which contributes to the high bursting, folding and tensile strengths. Writing papers produced from waste paper mixed with 5% bleached abaca pulp from cold soda pulping or chemi-thermo-mechanical pulping, have a strength similar to that of waste paper blends with 20% softwood pulp.
Adulterations and substitutes
The main substitutes for abaca for cordage are synthetic materials and sisal. Both are cheaper than abaca, but abaca is more slip-resistant than the other two, and stronger and more saltwater-resistant than sisal. Abaca’s competitors for the production of specialty papers are synthetic fibres, such as viscose and polyester, which are also used blended with abaca. Other Musa species and sterile cultivars are occasionally used to make specialty papers, clothing, and fibre crafts, but none match the strength of Musa textilis.
Perennial, tufted herb, when mature and undisturbed consisting of 12–30 or more pseudostems in different stages of development; corm cylindrical, short, bearing buds developing short rhizomes with suckers, and numerous slender adventitious roots extending 2–3 m and mostly confined to the top 25 cm of the soil; pseudostem (formed by 12–25 leaf sheaths) cylindrical, 2.5–8 m tall, 15–20 cm in diameter at base, mostly green, sometimes irregularly streaked deep brown, red, purple or even almost black towards the base, bearing up to 12 leaves. Leaves spirally arranged, simple; petiole 30–70 cm long, stiff; blade narrowly oblong, 100–240 cm × 20–60 cm, rounded or cordate and unequal at base, rounded or acute at apex, generally uniformly deep-green above, glaucous beneath. Inflorescence a terminal, drooping, racemiform spike, arising from the rhizome, with the peduncle for its greatest part included in the pseudostem; axis with transversely arranged, 1–2-seriate groups (hands or combs) of 8–14 flowers, each group in the axil of a bract; bracts lanceolate, 10–50 cm × 6–12 cm, closely overlapping, deciduous, leathery, reddish brown to green. Flowers unisexual; perianth of 5 fused outer tepals and one adaxial inner tepal; male flowers in upper part of inflorescence, about 4 cm long, deciduous, with 5 slightly exserted stamens and one pistillode; female flowers in basal part of inflorescence (first 3–6 nodes), with inferior ovary 5 cm long. Fruit bunch horizontal, lax; fruit a berry, narrowly ovoid or ellipsoid, 5–9 cm × 2–5 cm, curved at maturity, narrowed at base into a stout truncate stipe c. 1 cm long, pericarp 1 mm thick, ripening green; pulp scanty, pale buff, inedible; numerously seeded. Seeds subglobose-turbinate, very irregular in shape, c. 2–3 mm × 3–4 mm, smooth, black.
Other botanical information
Musa comprises 30–50 species and numerous, mainly triploid hybrids. Musa is often divided into 5 sections, with Musa textilis belonging to section Australimusa. On the basis of AFLP analysis it has been proposed to reduce the genus to 3 sections, according to the number of chromosomes.
The general structure of Musa textilis is similar to that of the edible banana cultivars, but it is more slender, the leaves are smaller and the fruits are seeded. Only 20 of the more than 400 abaca cultivars in the Philippines are of commercial importance. Further taxonomic study of the species is needed.
The fibre bundles are dispersed randomly in the outer and middle layers of the leaf sheath.
Growth and development
Emergence of abaca from seed occurs 2–4 weeks after sowing. Growth is initially slow, but accelerates after 2–4 months. As the first pseudostem grows, numerous suckers also begin growth from the base of the plant. In the first pseudostems flowering is initiated 18–24 months after sowing. Plants raised from 1-year-old suckers may flower 10–12 months after planting, and those raised from corms after 16–18 months. Thereafter flowering in a clump occurs year-round. Abaca is allogamous and bat-pollinated. The stigmas are receptive for 2 days, and the pollen remains viable for 2 days. Self-pollination is impossible due to the separation of male and female flowers in the inflorescence and the earlier flowering of female flowers, but sib-pollination between pseudostems of the same clump is possible. The first mature fruits are present at 27–34 months after planting. Upon fruit ripening, the stem dies.
A cultivated plant usually consists of 10–20 pseudostems of varying maturity, with 4–8 of those stems flowering in any given year. Normally pseudostems are harvested just before flowering, so flowering and fruiting do not take place in a typical plantation. The plant will live up to 25 years, but is usually not cultivated for more than 15 years, because its productivity decreases from then onwards.
Abaca needs hot and humid conditions to grow well. It is successfully cultivated at latitudes between 5°S and 15°N, below 500(–1200) m altitude, and grows best with an evenly distributed annual rainfall of 2000–3200 mm, an average temperature of 27°C, and a relative humidity of about 80%. It does not tolerate drought, waterlogging or strong winds. Both extreme cold and extreme heat cause detriment to the plant. Abaca is best planted on deep, well-drained, fertile soil. This natural fertility is especially important considering that the crop is usually planted and harvested over many years with little or no fertilization.
Propagation and planting
Musa textilis can be propagated with suckers, corms, seed, or in-vitro grown plants. Planting from seed is not common because plants take longer to reach maturity, and plants from seed do not express all traits of the parent plant due to high heterozygosity. Planting from seed is useful for breeding purposes, however. Suckers and corms are the most common planting materials. Corms are usually preferred over suckers since they are easier to handle and transport. In the preparation of corms, care should be taken not to destroy the bud eyes. Mature suckers are used to fill vacant spaces in established plantings. Corms and suckers can be obtained from existing planted fields or from a specifically-designated nursery with the plants in double rows 2 m apart, with 1 m between the paired rows and 1 m between plants within the row. In-vitro grown plants are also used for planting, especially in disease-control and yield improvement efforts.
Abaca can be planted irregularly among felled trees or in partially-cleared forest, or in a more orderly plantation. Planting materials are spaced at 2–3 m × 2–3 m, depending on cultivar size, resulting in a plant density of 1100–2500 plants/ha. They are planted in holes 40–50 cm deep, at the start of the rainy season (or year-round in areas without pronounced dry periods) to ensure a vigorous start.
Abaca can be intercropped with agroforestry trees such as Leucaena leucocephala (Lamk) de Wit to provide the abaca with shade and wind protection, and to maintain a constant temperature and humidity. Use of fruit trees or coconut (Cocos nucifera L.) for this function provides supplementary income in addition to protection of the abaca crop. During establishment of the plantation abaca can also be intercropped with annual food crops such as groundnut (Arachis hypogaea L.), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata (L.) Walp.) or rice (Oryza sativa L.), and once the plantation has reached maturity it can be intercropped with shade-tolerant annual crops. Research in the Philippines has shown that cover cropping with leguminous plants such as Calopogonium mucunoides Desv. and Desmodium heterocarpon (L.) DC. ssp. ovalifolium (Prain) Ohashi can increase abaca yield.
Abaca requires little care compared to other crops. The field should be maintained free of weeds during the first year, through shallow cultivation and ring weeding at 2–3-month intervals. It has been estimated that 100 t/ha of fresh pseudostems and leaves of abaca remove 280 kg N, 13 kg P, 430 kg K and 89 kg Ca per ha. When the fibre is extracted in the field and all other plant parts are returned to the soil, the nutrient loss is considerably lower and chemical fertilizers are normally not applied. Canals can help drainage in moisture-retaining soils. Thinning of excess suckers may be performed so as to limit the number of pseudostems maturing yearly to 8. The duration of profitable production varies according to cultivar and growing conditions, and in properly maintained areas production may not decline for over 20 years. In general, however, replanting is undertaken when plants are 10–15 years old.
Diseases and pests
Because abaca is a perennial and is usually vegetatively propagated, virus infections are a major concern. The most important viral diseases are abaca bunchy top virus (ABTV) and abaca mosaic virus (AbaMV). Abaca bunchy top virus, a babuvirus, is the most destructive disease of Musa textilis. It is transmitted by the banana aphid (Pentalonia nigronervosa). The virus can spread over long distances, as the wind can widely disperse winged forms of the aphid, and the virus is persistently retained by the aphid for 5–12 days. Infected plants develop chlorotic yellowish-white streaks and transparent veins; the plants become stunted and the crown of the plant develops a bunchy rosette growth form; finally the leaf blades dry up and turn brown. Recommended control is through a holistic approach of spraying to control the aphid vector, followed by removal of infected plants and herbicide treatment of the stumps to prevent sucker growth. Tissue culture of virus-free planting materials is important for replanting affected areas. Abaca mosaic virus, which has not yet been detected in Africa, is a strain of sugarcane mosaic virus (SCMV), a potyvirus. It is transmitted by various aphid species such as Aphis gossypii, Aphid glycines and Rhopalosiphum maidis, but this transmission is non-persistent (the virus lasts in the insect for less than four hours). The onset of abaca mosaic is characterized by mottling of the leaves, consisting of dark to pale green or yellowish streaks, which extend from the midribs to the margins; mottling also occurs on other parts of the plant. Affected plants do not grow to full size. Alternate hosts of the disease include sugarcane (Saccharum officinarum L.), maize (Zea mays L.), Canna indica L. and Maranta arundinacea L. Control measures include herbicide treatment, removal of infected plants and breeding for resistance.
The most important fungal disease of abaca is Fusarium wilt or Panama disease, caused by Fusarium oxysporum f.sp. cubense, which is also a major disease of the edible banana. It starts with rotting at the base of the pseudostem, with the rot moving upward until it reaches the leaf blades; plants become yellowish and eventually wilt. Cross sections of infected pseudostems and corms show black-purple vascular bundles. The first noticeable symptoms of the disease are the inward curling of the leaf blades at or near the tip of the lower leaves and the slow growth of the plants. The disease is spread primarily through planting material and tools and remains in the soil of infected fields. Hence the main control measures are use of clean planting material, removal and burning of infected plants, and quarantine of infected fields. Some cultivars demonstrate tolerance of the disease. Minor fungal diseases are dry sheath rot caused by Marasmius spp. and a stem rot caused by Deightoniella torulosa (synonym: Helminthosporium torulosum).
The corm weevil (Cosmopolites sordidus) is a major insect pest. It damages the plant by boring tunnels into the corm at the plant base. It can be controlled with insecticide treatment of planting material and the plant base, but as this is costly and environmentally hazardous, cultural control methods are preferred. These include the use of clean planting material, as the main spread of the weevil is through infested planting material.
Pseudostems are harvested individually at the appearance of the flagleaf, a small leaf that precedes emergence of the inflorescence. Harvest of a pseudostem consists of topping the stem at the base of the leaf blades and felling the stem with a slanting cut near ground level. Usually 2–4 pseudostems are ready for harvesting at the same time. The first harvest can take place 18–24 months after planting, and subsequent harvests every 3–12 months, depending on growing conditions and cultivar. The yields from the first harvests are usually small and the best yields are obtained from plants that are 4–8 years old. The same plant may be harvested for 10–15 years without replanting.
In 2001–2005 the estimated average fibre yield decreased from 1470 kg/ha to 1300 kg/ha in Ecuador, and from 680 kg/ha to 570 kg/ha in the Philippines. In Equatorial Guinea the estimated average yield in this period was about 280 kg/ha. Yields vary according to cultivar and location, and disease pressure is an important factor explaining the low yields in the Philippines.
Handling after harvest
Within 24 hours after harvest, the usable leaf sheaths of the pseudostem are peeled away one by one. The leaf sheaths are normally grouped according to their position in the pseudostem, so as to separate fibres of different grades. The outermost sheaths give stronger, coarser, darker fibre (better for cordage), and the innermost sheaths give a lighter-coloured, weaker, finer fibre (better for paper-making).
In a process called ‘tuxying’, the outer layers of the leaf-sheaths are pulled off in ribbons 5–8 cm wide, with a knife or a sharp piece of bamboo. These ribbons or ‘tuxies’ are then ‘stripped’: they are cleaned of their pulp (epidermis and parenchyma) to yield clean fibres. This is accomplished either manually, by placing the tuxies between a flat wooden surface and a serrated knife and pulling the tuxies, or with an engine-driven spindle that pulls the tuxies between the knife and the flat surface. The finer the serrations of the knife, the cleaner and purer the resulting fibre, but the lower the fibre recovery (with non-serrated knifes giving the cleanest fibre, though in lesser quantity). Any pulp not removed from the fibre in this process will discolour the fibre during drying. Fibres can also be extracted by mechanical decortication, in which the entire pseudostem is crushed and cleaned of its pulp, though this yields a lower grade fibre because both the primary and the secondary fibres of the leaf sheaths are extracted at the same time and mixed together. Hand stripping normally gives a fibre recovery of 1.2–1.5% of the fresh pseudostem weight, spindle stripping 1.5–2.5%, and machine decortication 3–4%. In the Philippines most farmers use hand stripping, whereas in Ecuador almost all abaca fibre is extracted with spindle stripping. The extracted fibre is hung on poles to dry, under a roof or in the open (or mechanically, in the case of machine decortication). After a drying period of a few hours to a few days, the fibre is graded and put in bales of 125 kg. The standard grades in the Philippines are divided into 2 main classes: hand-stripped and spindle-stripped. Within each class the fibre is further graded according to strength, cleaning, colour, texture and length. The grading system in Ecuador is simpler, and is mainly based on the colour and diameter of the fibre strands.
The paper industry uses the best abaca fibre grades for strong, porous papers such as tea bags and sausage casings. Lesser grades are used to make strong papers such as vacuum cleaner bags and Manila envelopes. Pulping is usually accomplished through the soda, alkaline sulphite and kraft processes, though cold soda pulping (CSP) and chemo-thermo-mechanical pulping (CMTP) also produce paper with good strength and optical properties. Pulps suitable for the production of rayon viscose have been prepared from abaca fibre using the kraft and alkaline sulphite pulping processes. It is possible to biologically bleach abaca kraft pulp using the white rot fungus Trametes versicolor.
The Philippines is the centre of genetic diversity of the species. The National Abaca Research Center (NARC), based at Leyte State University in Leyte, Philippines, holds the world’s largest collection of Musa textilis germplasm, with more than 600 accessions of both cultivated and wild types. Accessions are also conserved in vitro. Part of the collection at NARC has been characterized with respect to fibre morphology, chemical composition, fibre quality and physical properties. Though Musa textilis is a genetic contributor in certain edible seedless hybrid banana varieties, it has not been used in any breeding programs for edible bananas.
Most genetic improvement work is carried out in the Philippines. Priorities in breeding are disease and pest resistance, especially to viruses. Other priorities include early maturity, high yield and fibre quality, and drought and acid tolerance. Genetic engineering has been proposed to insert genes for resistance to different viruses into Musa textilis from wild, seedless relatives. Wild relatives for possible improvement through traditional breeding or biotechnology include ‘pacol’ (a strong-fibred form of Musa balbisiana Colla), ‘canton’ and ‘minay’ (sterile hybrids of Musa textilis and Musa balbisiana), and Musa alinsanaya R.V.Valmayor.
Successful cultivation of Musa textilis has long been confined to the Philippines and, more recently, Ecuador. In the Philippines numerous efforts are underway to increase abaca production through disease control, opening of new areas to plantations, mechanization of fibre extraction, and replanting of typhoon-damaged fields to new, disease-tolerant varieties. These efforts may also favour abaca production in other regions as well. Information on production and yields in Africa is hard to find, but it would seem that yields are very low in Equatorial Guinea, the main African producer of abaca. Still, abaca could be an interesting crop for both small and large producers in tropical Africa. It requires little maintenance and few inputs, and is compatible with intercropping of food, forage and tree species. Despite competition from sisal and synthetic fibres, abaca fibre is increasingly demanded on the world market, and this should continue as new uses are discovered. In a world increasingly concerned about the environment, abaca offers a number of environmental advantages over synthetic cordage and over fibreglass for plastic composites. Its production is carbon-neutral or even negative, and the by-products from its production and processing are readily biodegradable. Abaca is more environmentally desirable even than many other natural fibres, as it is grown with few petroleum-derived inputs such as synthetic fertilizers, and the extraction of abaca fibre uses little or no chemicals or water.
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Sources of illustration
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Correct citation of this article:
Vaughan, G., 2011. Musa textilis Née. In: Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). Prota 16: Fibres/Plantes à fibres. [CD-Rom]. PROTA, Wageningen, Netherlands.
1, habit; 2, bract with male flowers; 3, male flower; 4, fruit.