There has been of late a considerable search after plants producing fibers that could be advantageously used in the arts of paper making, rope making, and the manufacture of textile fabrics. Some of these materials have been discovered in North and South 'America, but a large majority of those claiming the attention of manufacturers are found in Southern Asia, more parTicularly in India. Among these stands most prominently a plant of the nettle family called by the natives " Tchuma," the botanical name of which is Urtica nivea. In Assam both a cultivated and wild variety is found, and in the Malayan peninsula, Panang, and Singapore, another variety grows wild, the fiber of which is unusually strong. This has a Malay name, " Bamee," and is in botany known as the Urtica ienacissima. This plant is identical with the ramie, now cultivated in the Southern States, brought originally, we believe, from Java. Mr. Leonard Wray, in a paper read before the Society of Arts, in London, describes the beautiful fiber of the " Rheea " as being worth in England two shillings and four pence per lb and says, " the fabrics made from it are of so strong and so lustrous a character as to be in universal demand. Pity, indeed, is it that this splendid fiber can be obtained only in such small quantities. No other supplies can be looked for, except from China, nor can we expect much from that country either. Its growth and preparation have been tried by most intelligent Englishmen in India, but they found, first, that the separation of the fibers from the plants was a most difficult and laborious operation; and, secondly, that the yield per acre per annum was exceedingly small. Indeed it is said to yield only one to one and a half cwt. of fiber to the acre—a fact which forbids any E\iropean from entertaining hope of cultivating it at a profit, which is much to be regretted." Mr. Wray also believes the plants called Pederia fcetida, the " JetteCf' " Moorm, and the pine apple, each and all of them, hold out the promise of amply remunerating any European who will attempt in a judicious manner to utilize the beautiful fibers they contain. Their fibers are fine, silken, and strong. He says, "The Pederia fatida ceitsbinly has the most silky and lustrous fiber any one can desire, and its being only in lengths from joint to joint seems the sole objection to it. Still, these joints are often 12 inches apart, while the finest Sea Island cotton is not more than one inch to an inch and" a half in staple. Attention ought, therefore, to be directed to this lustrous fiber-yielding plant. " The Jettee, again, is jointed, but the joints are sometimes two feet apart, and the fiber proportionably long. It is a most excellent fiber, and will be sure to make its way. "The pine apple, with its beautiful fiber, exists in thousands of acres in the Straits of Malacca, and may be had at Singapore in any quantity for the trouble of gathering, yet no one seems to regard it." Another important fiber-producing plant is the Bromelia penguin, from which the surprisingly beautiful Manilla hand-kerchiefs are made, as well as the celebrated "Pigna" cloth, an Indian fabric commanding always an extreme fancy price. This is a kind of wild pine-apple said to be exceedingly abundant. The late Mr. Temple, formerly Chief Justice of British Honduras, some years since exhibited a quantity* of this fiber to the Society of Arts, calling it silk grass. Mr. Wray says we may search the world through and not find another plant capable of yielding so rich, so abundant a supply of a fiber which in quality cannot be excelled, and that it is a plant which we may look to, to provide us with a large amount of the very best quality of fiber. The fiber alluded to can be grown exceedingly cheap, and it is asserted that the manufacture involves no difliculty. The fiber is said to be separated by a machine constructed somewhat on the principle of the thrashing machine, the plant being passed at a slow rate along a platform having a yielding surface, through rollers and beaters; and, when this is done with the plant in a green state, it comes out at the other end of the machine very good fiber, which is improved by repeating the operation. A stream of water is used to wash tho pulp away as it is expressed from the fiber. Among cordage fibers there is the nettle and the canna; the latter often growing fourteen feet high. The whole stalk and leaf are said to be one mass of fiber, and the root furnishes a species of arrowroot said to be the most nutritious of all the starches. It is thought that some if not all of these plants can be grown in Europe, and if so they ought to thrive in parts of the United States. It is not a just inference that because a plant is a native of a tropical clime it will not thrive in temperate climates. Though this may be the rule, there are numerous exceptions. Our Commissioner of Agriculture would do the country a service by obtaining and distributing the seeds of these plants in sections most favorable to their growth, if he has not already done so. We are far from believing the vegetable kingdom contributes to the wealth of mankind all, or nearly all, it is capable of doing. It is within the memory of yet young men, that the tomato was considered a useless vegetable, yet to-day there is probably no fruit grown in this country, if we except the apple, more generally used and esteemed. It is quite probable that many plants indigenous to Dur soil, possess fiber which would be of great service, if properly worked. Among those which seem most promising are some of the '* Asdepids" family, popularly known as "milkweeds," " silk weeds," and so forth. The plants are large, rapid, and thrifty growlers, and their pods contain a large amount of cctton-like fiber, which, though it might not be sufficiently strong for textile fabrics would make, we think, r3xcellcnt paper stock. We are not aware that any experi- 74 ments have been fnade with this fibr, although we have often heard it spoken of by manuracturers, as likely to prove serviceable, conld it be producod at a cheap rate. Wo cannot of course say what amount of fiber could be produced upon a given quantity of land, but as it grows wild with great luxuriance, it would seem that a large crop- might be expected on rich soil under cultivation.
This article was originally published with the title "Little Known Fibrous Plants" in Scientific American 21, 5, 73-74 (July 1869)