An agave plant, Agave fourcroydes, and the fiber obtained from its leaves. Henequen is produced only in Mexico, Cuba, and El Salvador. It is a hard plant fiber and is used to make rope, twine, and cord. Henequen is sometimes incorrectly called sisal, which is a closely related plant grown in Brazil and Africa. See also: Fiber crops; Sisal
A well-developed henequen plant (see illustration) has a short stem that is approximately 30–45 cm (12–18 in.) in diameter and 1–1.5 m (3.3–5 ft) in height at maturity. Leaves are 1–2 m (3.3–6.6 ft) in length and 10–15 cm (4–6 in.) in width near the base. The leaves are gray–green, thick, succulent, and smooth, with many small, curved spines on the edges and a sharp terminal spine that is 1–3 cm (0.4–1.2 in.) in length. When the plant is 15–25 years old, a flower stalk grows up through the top to a height of 4–8 m (13–26 ft) and develops terminal branches, which bear flowers near their tips. The flowers are followed by seeds or by bulbils (secondary bulbs that are usually produced on the aerial part of a plant), or sometimes by both.
The henequen plant requires a dry, tropical climate and a well-drained soil, preferably of limestone formation. In Yucatan, which is the chief henequen-growing area of Mexico, the average annual rainfall is approximately 75 cm (30 in.), and the temperature is seldom below 15°C (59°F). Many of the plantations located in Yucatan are rocky, and land preparation consists of removal of trees, shrubs, and some of the native vegetation before setting out the plants. If the conditions permit, the land for planting should be plowed and cultivated.
Henequen plants are propagated from bulbils or more generally from suckers. Bulbils must be cultivated in a nursery for 1 or 2 years before they are set out in the field. Suckers are dug when 40–60 cm (16–24 in.) in height; then, after some of the top is cut back, they are set out directly in the field. Plantations consist usually of double rows that are about 1 m (3.3 ft) apart, with plants being spaced about 1.25 m (4 ft) apart in each row. Approximately 3.5–4 m (11.5–13 ft) of space is provided between each pair of rows. Some planting is done in single rows.
Harvesting and processing
The first cutting of henequen leaves for fiber is in the sixth or seventh year. Successive harvests are at 6- to 12-month intervals for periods of 10 to 20 years. About 15–20 leaves at an angle of 40° or more from the vertical are cut each time. The terminal and marginal spines are trimmed off, and the leaves are tied in bundles and taken to a defibering machine, where they are beaten and scraped. The fiber obtained is usually dried in the sun, but sometimes dryers are used.
The greatest quantity of henequen fiber is used to manufacture farm twine, followed by industrial tying twine and then light-duty rope. Padding for innerspring mattresses is made from the lowest grades of fiber and from flume tow, which is the short, tangled fiber that can be recovered from the cleaning operation. Henequen is exported as manufactured twine, rope, or padding; it is not exported as raw fiber. See also: Natural fiber
Henequen is affected by fewer diseases than most plants. Disease symptoms are frequently caused by nutrient deficiencies. The fungus, Colletotrichum coccodes (alternatively C. agaves), may attack the leaves and cause leaf spots, especially if the leaves have been punctured by insects. Infestation by the sisal weevil, Scyphophorus acupunctatus (alternatively S. interstitialis), which bores into the bud, can be reduced by field sanitation and by spraying with insecticides. See also: Fungi; Insecticide; Plant pathology