Saturday, March 21, 2009

Help Needed to Identify Mystery Fiber Plant

Dear Friends:

A request for help from John Stahl:

For many years I have been trying to set up a pulp mill to make pulp and paper from hemp, kenaf, and other non-wood fibers. This has proceeded very slowly every step of the way, but at least we finally have a small prototype built. It is currently located in one of the least stable of the world’s countries (you don’t want to know), but we will probably set it up here in Cambodia to provide pulp for a project making handmade paper, while waiting for serious investors to creep back out from the woodwork whence they have vanished since the world-wide financial melt-down.

The project was originally set up to assist kids who live at the local dump-site, eking out a precarious existence scavenging stuff to recycle. They were trying to re-pulp paper scraps into hand made paper which they would then decorate into greeting cards for sale to Western donors. The problem was that they had no idea of what they were doing (their paper was just junk that would fall apart if you tried to handle it), so I have been volunteering to help them make much better paper.

They have already built fairly decent moulds and deckles from primitive tools and native materials, and we are now working on a very primitive Hollander beater. The design I gave them features a hand crank with a mill-stone for a beater roll, which will still put them miles ahead of pounding pulp with sticks. Of course I know that the shaft will have to be fitted with a pulley, belt, and motor, but when they tell me “there is no power available,” I pretend to accept that, for now.

Cheap labor they have plenty of, and there are willing hands (and backs) ready to take a turn at the hand crank – these kids are desperately poor, remember. (“Oh, you want to add on a motor after all? What an excellent idea . . . ”)

To strengthen their pulp, I want to cultivate kenaf, and I am working on getting seeds over here, but I found a wonderful fiber plant that seems quite amazing to me. It was so tough that I could barely pull off a cutting, but I have succeeded in getting a healthy cutting started. It is a good thing, because the original mother plant has been destroyed to a road-widening project.
This plant is so good that I am sure it is a known fiber plant, and I am seeking help to identify it. If anyone has any familiarity with tropical fiber plants, please write to me directly at and I will send along some photos of the plant to help with identification. I am just waiting for it to flower and produce seed, and then I want to start up a plantation.

By the way, some years ago I sent out free packets of kenaf to lots of people who requested it, and if any of that kenaf is still in cultivation, I would love to get a packet of seed sent to me here in Cambodia (write for my address).

Also, while I am writing here, does anyone have experience with roselle (Hibiscus sabdariffa)? It is a smaller version of kenaf, but it features wonderful red calyxes, the source of the hibiscus in Red Zinger tea. It is “cultivated primarily for its fiber” so I have the idea of cultivating it as a dual crop to make it profitable for the local farmers.

I am trying to quit drinking coffee which (unfortunately) is unusually good over here.

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