The kenaf plant may be little known to many people in Western countries, but has been around for thousands of years in ancient cultures of the world. This beautiful plant is considered by some to be an alternative to hemp because of the similarities between the two plants.
What is kenaf?
The Latin name for kenaf is Hibiscus Cannabinus. Although its natural origin is unknown, recorded history shows it was used in Southern Asia and east-central Africa for several thousand years. It was primarily used for food and fiber.
Kenaf is a close relative to cotton and okra, and is easy to grow. The plant contains two types of fibers. One is long bast fiber from the bark, used to make burlap, carpet padding, and pulp. The second is the spongy super absorbent core fiber.
The fiber is used in animal bedding, packing materials, fire logs, and oil absorbent mats. The raw material is often sold to manufacturers that use it to make final products. Domestically, it is an extremely niche market and there are only a few processing plants in the country.
Hemp and Kenaf: Similar and Differences
The main differences between the plants are the appearance. The kenaf plant has cone shaped seeds that resemble tiny shark’s teeth, and round stalks with many thorns. Some varieties have solid leaves, while others resemble hemp leaves. The hemp plant has round seeds and the stalks are four sided with no thorns.
Each plant contains fiber, but have different ratios between the bast and the core. Kenaf stalks consist of 40% bast fiber and 60% core fiber. The bast fiber can be compared to softwood, which is a high quality fiber typically used for commercial paper production. The core is used for absorbent materials, such as Loss Circulation Material and oil spill cleanup material.
On the other hand, hemp stalks consist of 25% bast, or long fiber and 75% core fiber. The bast fiber is longer and stronger than that of its legal cousin, and is typically used for textiles and rope making. The core is also one of the most absorbent materials on the planet.
Agriculturally the plants have the same basic requirements, and can be grown in a broad geographical range. Both can be planted once the soil temperature reaches 55 degrees f, however unlike kenaf, hemp can withstand frost, which means in some areas planting can begin as early as April or May.
The plants mature in just 120-150 days, with hemp on the lower end of that timeframe. Kenaf yields six to ten tons per acre annually. While hemp fiber production is considerably less. A four-ton yield is considered good for hemp.
The major difference between these two extremely similar plants is that kenaf is a legal crop. While industrial hemp’s relationship to marijuana is problematic. Currently, the US government is starting to recognize the difference between marijuana and hemp. Legislation is being passed in many states to allow industrial hemp with a THC content of 0.3% or less to be grown in research studies.
Current US laws surrounding hemp make it illegal to grow in many states. However hemp products are legal if they are imported. Kenaf products can be made from plants grown legally in America. This is why many companies are using it instead of hemp to produce industrial products.
Alternative Agronomic Crops, ATTRA, NCAT, 2000.
Economic Feasibility of Kenaf Production in Three Tennessee Counties, University of Tennessee, 2007 – This research includes estimated costs and returns for kenaf production.