Abacá (/ɑːbəˈkɑː/ah-bə-KAH; Spanish: abacá[aβaˈka]), binomial name Musa textilis, is a species of banana native to the Philippines, grown as a commercial crop in the Philippines, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. The plant, known as Manila hemp, has great economic importance, being harvested for its fiber, also called Manila hemp, extracted from the leaf-stems. The plant grows to 13–22 feet (4.0–6.7 m), and averages about 12 feet (3.7 m). The fiber was originally used for making twines and ropes; now most is pulped and used in a variety of specialized paper products including tea bags, filter paper and banknotes. It is classified as a hard fiber, along with coir, henequin and sisal.
The abacá plant is stoloniferous, meaning that the plant produces runners or shoots along the ground that then roots itself at each segment. This is the primary technique for creating new plants in that the runners are cut and transplanted, since seed growth is substantially slower. The leaves grow from the trunk of the plant, the bases of the leaves form a sheath (covering) around the trunk; there are approximately 25 of these, with 5 cm in diameter and from 12 to 25 leaves with overlapping petioles, covering the stalk to form a shrub, "false trunk" or pseudostem about 6–15 inches (15–38 cm) in diameter. The leaves are dark green on the top and pale green on the underside, sometimes with large brown patches. They are oblong in shape with a deltoid base. They grow in succession, with the oldest growing from the bottom of the trunk and successively younger ones from the top. The petioles grow to at least 1 foot (30 cm) in length. The male flower has 5 petals, each about 1.5 inches (3.8 cm) long. The sheaths contain the valuable fiber. After harvesting the coarse fibers ranges in length from 6–12 feet (180–370 cm) long. They are composed primarily of cellulose, lignin, and pectin.
The fruit, which is inedible, and is rarely seen as harvesting occurs before the plant fruits, grows to about 2–3 inches (5.1–7.6 cm) in length and 1 inch (2.5 cm) in diameter. They have black turbinate seeds that are .167 inches (0.42 cm) in diameter.
The abacá plant belongs to the banana family, Musaceae; it resembles the closely related wild seeded bananas, Musa acuminata and Musa balbisiana. Its scientific name is Musa textilis. Within the genusMusa, it is placed in section Callimusa (now including the former section Australimusa), members of which have a diploidchromosome number of 2n = 20.
Before synthetic textiles came into use, M. textilis was a major source of high quality fiber: soft, silky and fine. Europeans first came into contact with it when Magellan made land in the Philippines in 1521, as the natives were cultivating it and utilizing it in bulk for textiles already. By 1897, the Philippines were exporting almost 100,000 tons of abacá, and it was one of the three biggest cash crops, along with tobacco and sugar. In fact, from 1850 through the end of the 19th century, sugar or abacá alternated with each other as the biggest export crop of the Philippines. This 19th century trade was predominantly with the United States and the making of ropes was done mainly in New England, although in time the rope-making was moved back to the Philippines. Excluding the Philippines, abacá was first cultivated on a large scale in Sumatra in 1925 under the Dutch, who had observed its cultivation in the Philippines for cordage since the nineteenth century, followed up by plantings in Central America in 1929 sponsored by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It also was transplanted into India and Guam. Commercial planting began in 1930 in British North Borneo; with the commencement of World War II, the supply from the Philippines was eliminated by the Japanese. After the war, the U.S. Department of Agriculture started production in Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala. Today, abacá is produced commercially in only three countries: Philippines, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. The Philippines produces between 85% and 95% of the world's abacá, and the production employs 1.5 million people. Production has declined because of virus diseases.
Due to its strength, it is a sought after product and is the strongest of the natural fibers. It is used by the paper industry for such specialty uses as teabags, and mimeograph mats. It can be used to make handcrafts like bags, carpets, clothing and furniture. Abacá rope is very durable, flexible and resistant to salt water damage, allowing its use in hawsers, ship's lines and fishing nets. A 1 inch (2.5 cm) rope can require 4 metric tons (8,800 lb) to break. Abacá fiber was once used primarily for rope, but this application is now of minor significance. Lupis is the finest quality of abacá.Sinamay is woven chiefly from abacá.
The plant is normally grown in well-drained loamy soil, using pieces of mature root planted at the start of the rainy season. Growers harvest abacá fields every three to eight months after an initial growth period of 12–25 months. The harvesting is accomplised by removing the leaf-stems after flowering but before fruit arrives. The plant loses productivity between 15 and 40 years. The slopes of volcanoes provide a preferred growing environment. Harvest generally includes having several operations concerning the leaf sheaths:
tuxying (separation of primary and secondary sheath)
stripping (getting the fibers)
drying (usually following tradition of sun-drying).
In Costa Rica, more modern harvest and drying techniques are being developed to accommodate the very high yields obtained there.
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