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Sisal (Agave sisalana) is an agave that yields a stiff fibre traditionally used in making twine, rope and also dartboards. The term may refer either to the plant or the fibre, depending on context. It is sometimes incorrectly referred to as sisal hemp because hemp was for centuries a major source for fibre, so other fibres were sometimes named after it.

The plant's origin is uncertain; while traditionally it was deemed to be a native of Yucatan, there are no records of botanical collections from there. H.S. Gentry hypothesized a Chiapas origin, on the strength of traditional local usage. In the 19th century, sisal cultivation spread to Florida, the Caribbean islands and Brazil, as well as to countries in Africa, notably Tanzania and Kenya, and Asia. The first commercial plantings in Brazil were made in the late 1930s and the first sisal fibre exports from there were made in 1948. It was not until the 1960s that Brazilian production accelerated and the first of many spinning mills was established. Today Brazil is the major world producer of sisal. There are both positive and negative environmental impacts from sisal growing.

Traditionally used for rope and twine, sisal has many uses, including paper, cloth, wall coverings and carpets.


The sisal plant

Sisal plants consist of a rosette of sword-shaped leaves about 1.5 to 2 metres tall. Young leaves may have a few minute teeth along their margins, but lose them as they mature. Sisals are sterile hybrids of uncertain origin; although shipped from the port of Sisal in Yucatán (thus the name), they do not actually grow in Yucatán, the plantations there cultivate henequen (Agave fourcroydes) instead. Evidence of an indigenous cottage industry in Chiapas suggests it as the original location, possibly as a cross of Agave angustifolia and Agave kewensis.

Propagation of sisal is generally by using bulbils produced from buds in the flower stalk or by suckers growing around the base of the plant, which are grown in nursery fields until large enough to be transplanted to their final position. These methods offer no potential for genetic improvement. Invitro multiplication of selected genetic material using meristematic tissue culture (MST) offers considerable potential for the development of improved genetic material. [1]

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