Sisal is a succulent originating in Mexico and valued for the strong fibres in its leaves. The plant is normally 1 to 3 m (3 to 10 ft) tall, but when it flowers produces a towering flower spike reaching up to 7 m (23 ft) in height, growing straight up from the centre of the plant.
It has a thick, stout central stem on which long fleshy sword-shaped leaves attach in an encircling arrangement. Each leaf is up to 1.5 m (5 ft) long with smooth dark to light green skin and a sharp, needle-like tip.
Flowering only once at the end of an eight-year lifespan, it produces small yellow-greenish flowers at the top of the flower spike in the final spring to summer of its life. Fruit rarely follow, instead numerous young plantlets known as bulbils grow to replace the flowers and are complete plants in themselves, which can be taken and planted directly in soil.
A strong, durable fibre stripped from the leaf has a wide range of industrial uses. These include the manufacture of carpet, carpet backing, rugs, rope, cordage, wash and cleaning cloths, large bags or sacks (such as coffee sacks), wall plaster reinforcement material, composite materials (such as composites of fibre and plastic), material for replacing fibreglass in moulded products, as well as speciality pulps for the manufacture of durable paper products such as bank notes. Paper products manufactured using Sisal are reported to have an exceptionally high tear strength.
The leaves can be harvested year-round but are usually harvested periodically, on average around twenty times over the life of the plant, beginning when the plant is around two to three years old. The raw fibres are stripped from the leaves, washed and dried in the sun. The sun-dried fibres then undergo further refinement, including brushing in order to ready them for manufacturing.
The flowers produce nectar in such abundance that it drips onto the leaves. Honey made from the nectar is described as dark and strong, but of poor flavour and is generally unpalatable. However, it is of good energy value to brood-rearing honeybees.
The dried, skeletonised leaves are used as a textural component in floral arrangements.
It is sometimes cultivated as an ornamental in gardens for its handsome shape as well as its sharp thorns, which serve as a barrier to unwelcome visitors.
Grows naturally in sub-humid to moderately humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally in areas with annual lows of 12 to 25 °C, annual highs of 27 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 500 to 1400 mm and a dry season of 9 months or less.
New plants are usually grown from plantlets taken from the flower-spike, but suckers taken from around the base of mature plants are also suitable growing material.
Performs best on free-draining sand or loam soils with a slightly acid to alkaline nature, generally with a pH of 6.0 to 8.5 pH and on sites with full sun exposure. It is intolerant of waterlogging.
It produces hundreds of plantlets which eventually fall from the flower-spike to the ground where some take root, creating new plants which over successive generations can form dense, impenetrable thickets.
It is listed as a weed in more than one reference publication and is assessed to be a high weed risk species for Hawaii by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA)
The sap from the leaves is an irritant and can cause contact dermatitis and swelling of the tissues of the mouth and throat. The sharp, needle-like spine at the end of the leaf can cause serious injury.
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