Ramie is a fibre producing plant originating in India and Southeast Asia, its natural range extending from the foothills of the Himalayas through Myanmar (Burma) to Cambodia, Vietnam and China.
It is a perennial sub-shrub with a clumping habit, made up of slender, erect, unbranched stems up to 2.5 m (8 ft) tall sprouting from underground rhizomes.
The leaves attach directly to the stems on long leaf stalks. They are heart-shaped with serrated margins, up to 20 cm (8 in) long and just as wide, deep green and prominently veined on top, silver-grey and softly hairy underneath.
The flowers are small and insignificant, either female or male on the same plant, borne in separate, very hairy, dense flowering spikes arising at the top of the stems. They are followed by very small, roundish seed.
The stems yield a durable, pure-white, lustrous fibre, which is the longest and strongest of all known plant fibres, reportedly up to eight times stronger than cotton. It is able to absorb and liberate moisture quickly, making it highly suitable for clothing. However, the difficulty in removing the sticky gum that surrounds the fibre is a drawback that has caused it to remain a minor fibre crop.
The fibre has a history of use in textiles for making shirts, suits, underwear, household linens, ropes, cordage, threads, sailcloth and a variety of industrial products such as belting for machinery, upholstering, tarpaulins and fire-hoses. It is also made into pulp used for manufacturing cigarette papers.
The leaves and especially the plant tops are palatable to livestock and are high in protein, with a reported crude protein content of around 20% to 30% of their dry weight.
Grows naturally and produces quality fibres in humid subtropical and tropical climates, generally areas with annual lows of 13 to 25 °C, annual highs of 21 to 35 °C, annual rainfall of 1200 to 4000 mm and a dry season of 5 months or less, extending to 12 months with irrigation, such as in Egypt.
New plants are usually obtained by dividing established clumps into individual plants and then replanting them. Starting plants from cuttings, including rhizome and stem cuttings is also practised as is plants raised from seed, but this to a lesser extent.
Performs best on free-draining loam and sand soils of a moderate to slightly acid nature, generally with a pH of 5.5 to 6.5 and on sites with full sun exposure. It is intolerant of slow-draining or waterlogged soils.
The stems are harvested soon after the onset of flowering and are normally harvested two to three times per year. After the stems have been cut, the bark is peeled or beaten away. The extracted fibres are then bathed in caustic soda to dissolve the gums, pectins and waxes, then sun-dried to bleach them white.
The seed are very small and easily dispersed by wind and flowing water, with reports suggesting its spread is mainly concentrated along watercourses. It is assessed as a high-risk species for Hawaii, by the Hawaii Pacific Weed Risk Assessment project (HPWRA).
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