Fine Art

Agave sisalana

Agave sisalana , Photo: Michael Lahanas

Classification System: APG IV

Superregnum: Eukaryota
Regnum: Plantae
Cladus: Angiosperms
Cladus: Monocots
Ordo: Asparagales

Familia: Asparagaceae
Subfamilia: Agavoideae
Genus: Agave
Species: Agave sisalana

Agave sisalana Perrine, 1838

Agave rigida var. sisalana (Perrine) Engelm., Trans. Acad. Sci. St. Louis 3: 316 (1875).
Agave sisalana var. armata Trel., Mem. Natl. Acad. Sci. 11: 49 (1913).
Agave sisalana f. armata (Trel.) Trel., Contr. U.S. Natl. Herb. 23: 118 (1920).
Agave amaniensis Trel. & Nowell, Bull. Misc. Inform. Kew 1933: 465 (1933).
Agave segurae D.Guillot & P.Van der Meer, Flora Montiber. 29: 30 (2005).

Native distribution areas:

Continental: Northern America
Regional: Mexico
Mexico (Yucatan Pen.)

References: Brummitt, R.K. 2001. TDWG – World Geographical Scheme for Recording Plant Distributions, 2nd Edition

Perrine, H., 1838. Congr. Doc. 564: 87


Govaerts, R. et al. 2019. Agave sisalana in World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the internet. Accessed: 2019 Jan. 05. Reference page.
International Plant Names Index. 2019. Agave sisalana. Published online. Accessed: Jan. 05 2019.
The Plant List 2013. Agave sisalana in The Plant List Version 1.1. Published on the internet. Accessed: 2019 Jan. 05. 2019. Agave sisalana. Missouri Botanical Garden. Published on the internet. Accessed: 2019 Jan. 05.
USDA, ARS, Germplasm Resources Information Network. Agave sisalana in the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN), U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Accessed: 08-Apr-12.

Vernacular names
Afrikaans: Sisal
български: Сизал
čeština: agáve sisalová
English: Sisal
español: Sisal
suomi: Sisalagaave
français: Sisal
italiano: Agave sisalana, Sisal
日本語: サイザルアサ
polski: agawa sizalowa, sizal
português: Sisal
русский: Сизаль
Türkçe: Sisal
中文: 剑麻, 菠萝麻

Sisal (/ˈsaɪsəl/,[2] Spanish: [siˈsal]), with the botanical name Agave sisalana, is a species of flowering plant native to southern Mexico but widely cultivated and naturalized in many other countries. It yields a stiff fibre used in making rope and various other products. The term sisal may refer either to the plant's common name or the fibre, depending on the context. It is sometimes referred to as "sisal hemp", because for centuries hemp was a major source for fibre, and other fibre sources were named after it.

The sisal fibre is traditionally used for rope and twine, and has many other uses, including paper, cloth, footwear, hats, bags, carpets, geotextiles, and dartboards. It is also used as fibre reinforcements for composite fibre-glass, rubber and cement products.


The native origin of Agave sisalana is uncertain. Traditionally it was deemed to be a native of the Yucatán Peninsula, but there are no records of botanical collections from there. They were originally shipped from the Spanish colonial port of Sisal in Yucatán (thus the name). The Yucatán plantations now cultivate henequen (Agave fourcroydes).

H.S. Gentry hypothesized a Chiapas origin, on the strength of traditional local usage. Evidence of an indigenous cottage industry there suggests it as the original habitat location, possibly as a cross of Agave angustifolia and Agave kewensis. The species is now naturalized in other parts of Mexico, as well as in Spain, Libya, Morocco, the Canary Islands, Cape Verde, many parts of Africa, Madagascar, Réunion, Seychelles, China, the Ryukyu Islands, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Burma, Cambodia, Thailand, the Solomon Islands, Queensland, Polynesia, Micronesia, Fiji, Hawaii, Florida, Central America, Ecuador, and the West Indies.[3]
Plant description

Sisal plants, Agave sisalana, consist of a rosette of sword-shaped leaves about 1.5–2 metres (4 ft 11 in–6 ft 7 in) tall. Young leaves may have a few minute teeth along their margins, but lose them as they mature.[4]

The sisal plant has a 7–10 year life-span and typically produces 200–250 commercially usable leaves. Each leaf contains an average of around 1000 fibres. The fibres account for only about 4% of the plant by weight. Sisal is considered a plant of the tropics and subtropics, since production benefits from temperatures above 25 °C (77 °F) and sunshine.[5]

Inflorescence in Goa, India.

Flowers in Goa, India.


Sisal was used by the Aztecs and the Mayans to make fabrics and paper.[6]

In the 19th century, sisal cultivation spread to Florida, the Caribbean islands, and Brazil (Paraiba and Bahia), as well as to countries in Africa, notably Tanzania and Kenya, and Asia. Sisal reportedly "came to Africa from Florida, through the mechanism of a remarkable German botanist, by the name of Hindorf."[7]

In Cuba its cultivation was introduced in 1880, by Fernando Heydrich in Matanzas.[8]

The first commercial plantings in Brazil were made in the late 1930s and the first sisal fibre exports from there were made in 1948. It was not until the 1960s that Brazilian production accelerated and the first of many spinning mills was established. Today Brazil is the major world producer of sisal. There are both positive and negative environmental impacts from sisal growing.


Propagation of sisal is generally by using bulbils produced from buds in the flower stalk or by suckers growing around the base of the plant, which are grown in nursery fields until large enough to be transplanted to their final position. These methods offer no potential for genetic improvement. In vitro multiplication of selected genetic material using meristematic tissue culture (MST) offers considerable potential for the development of improved genetic material.[9]

Fibre extraction

Fibre is extracted by a process known as decortication, where leaves are crushed, beaten, and brushed away by a rotating wheel set with blunt knives, so that only fibres remain. Alternatively, in East Africa, where production is typically on large estates,[10][11] the leaves are transported to a central decortication plant, where water is used to wash away the waste parts of the leaf.[12]

The fibre is then dried, brushed and baled for export. Proper drying is important as fibre quality depends largely on moisture content. Artificial drying has been found to result in generally better grades of fibre than sun drying, but is not always feasible in the less industrialised countries where sisal is produced. In the drier climate of north-east Brazil, sisal is mainly grown by smallholders and the fibre is extracted by teams using portable raspadors which do not use water.[13]

Fibre is subsequently cleaned by brushing. Dry fibres are machine combed and sorted into various grades, largely on the basis of the previous in-field separation of leaves into size groups.[13]

Baled Brazilian sisal fibre

Sisal fibre drying machine in Java.

A sisal plantation in Morogoro, Tanzania. The Uluguru Mountains can be seen in the background.

Historical image showing a sisal plantation on Java.

Environmental impacts

Sisal farming initially caused environmental degradation, because sisal plantations replaced native forests, but is still considered less damaging than many types of farming. No chemical fertilizers are used in sisal production, and although herbicides are occasionally used, even this impact may be eliminated, since most weeding is done by hand.[14] The effluent from the decortication process causes serious pollution when it is allowed to flow into watercourses.[15] In Tanzania there are plans to use the waste as bio-fuel.[16]

Sisal is considered to be an invasive species in Hawaii and Florida.[17]

Traditionally, sisal has been the leading material for agricultural twine (binder twine and baler twine) because of its strength, durability, ability to stretch, affinity for certain dyestuffs, and resistance to deterioration in saltwater.[18] The importance of this traditional use is diminishing with competition from polypropylene and the development of other haymaking techniques, while new higher-valued sisal products have been developed.[5]

Apart from ropes, twines, and general cordage, sisal is used in low-cost and specialty paper, dartboards, buffing cloth, filters, geotextiles, mattresses, carpets, handicrafts, wire rope cores, and macramé.[5] Sisal has been utilized as an environmentally friendly strengthening agent to replace asbestos and fibreglass in composite materials in various uses including the automobile industry.[5] The lower-grade fibre is processed by the paper industry because of its high content of cellulose and hemicelluloses. The medium-grade fibre is used in the cordage industry for making ropes, baler and binder twine. Ropes and twines are widely employed for marine, agricultural, and general industrial use. The higher-grade fibre after treatment is converted into yarns and used by the carpet industry.[18]

Other products developed from sisal fibre include spa products, cat scratching posts, lumbar support belts, rugs, slippers, cloths, and disc buffers. Sisal wall covering meets the abrasion and tearing resistance standards of the American Society for Testing and Materials and of the National Fire Protection Association.[14]
Weaving a door mat in Uganda

As extraction of fibre uses only a small percentage of the plant, some attempts to improve economic viability have focused on utilizing the waste material for production of biogas, for stockfeed, or the extraction of pharmaceutical materials.

Sisal is a valuable forage for honey bees because of its long flowering period. It is particularly attractive to them during pollen shortage. The honey produced is however dark and has a strong and unpleasant flavour.[19]

Because sisal is an agave, it can be distilled to make mezcal.[20] In India it may be an ingredient in some street snacks.[21]

Despite the yarn durability sisal is known for, slight matting of sisal carpeting may occur in high-traffic areas.[5] Sisal carpet does not build up static nor does it trap dust, so vacuuming is the only maintenance required. High-spill areas should be treated with a fibre sealer and for spot removal, a drycleaning powder is recommended. Depending on climatic conditions, sisal will absorb air humidity or release it, causing expansion or contraction. Sisal is not recommended for areas that receive wet spills or rain or snow.[5] Sisal is used by itself in carpets or in blends with wool and acrylic for a softer hand.[22]
Global production and trade patterns
Major sisal
(thousands of tonnes)[23] Brazil 150.6
Tanzania 34.9
Kenya 28.0
Madagascar 18.9
People's Republic of China 16.5
Mexico 12.0
Haiti 9.0
World total 281.6

Global production of sisal fibre in 2013 amounted to 281 thousand tonnes of which Brazil, the largest producing country, produced 150,584 tonnes.[23]

Tanzania produced approximately 34,875 tons, Kenya produced 28,000 tonnes, Madagascar 18,950 tonnes and 16,500 tonnes were produced in China (mainland). Venezuela contributed 4,826 tons with smaller amounts coming from Morocco, South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola. Sisal occupies 6th place among fibre plants, representing 2% of the world's production of plant fibres (plant fibres provide 65% of the world's fibres).[13]

As one of the world's important natural fibres, sisal was included in the scope of the International Year of Natural Fibres, 2009.

The sisal plant appears in the arms of Barquisimeto, Venezuela.[24]

An unofficial coat of arms for the Yucatán State in Mexico features a deer bounding over a sisal plant.[25]
In literature

Journalist John Gunther wrote of sisal in 1953 that "if it had not been for the fact that sisal is a difficult crop, there might not have been a Munich in 1939. Neville Chamberlain started out life as a sisal planter in the Bahamas, and only returned to Britain and entered politics when he found that this obdurate vegetable was too hard to grow."[7]
See also

Fiber plants
Fiber rope
International Year of Natural Fibres
Sisal production in Tanzania
Wire rope


The Plant List, Agave sisalana
An Anglo-Latin pronunciation. OED: "Sisal".
Kew World Checklist of Selected Plant Families, Agave sisalana
Perrine, Henry. Tropical Plants - 25th Congres, 2d session [Rep. no. 564] Ho. of Reps. Dr. Henry Perrine 8, 9, 16, 47, 60, 86. 1838.
"The Sisal plant". Retrieved 2010-07-12.
Seigler, David (2005). Fibers from Plants. Retrieved from (Links to an external site.)
Gunther, John (1955). Inside Africa. Harper & Brothers. p. 408. ISBN 0836981979.
García, Antonio Santamaría (1900). Economía y colonia: la economía cubana y la relación con España (1765–1902) (in Spanish). Editorial CSIC Press. ISBN 978-8400090081.
"UNIDO". Retrieved 2013-11-09.
Yuko Ikeda, Shinzo Kohjiya (2014). Chemistry, Manufacture and Applications of Natural Rubber. Elsevier Science. p. 262. ISBN 9780857096913.
Witucki, Lawrence A. (1976). Agricultural Development in Kenya Since 1967. University of Minnesota: U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service. p. 3.
Gutierrez, Jerry (26 May 2015). "What is Sisal?". Retrieved 29 May 2016.
IENICA "Sisal" - URL retrieved February 16, 2011
Sisal Floor and Wall Coverings - URL retrieved June 25, 2006
Forest Conservation in the East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania Retrieved December 21, 2008
Biofuels Digest Archived 2009-09-11 at the Wayback Machine Retrieved December 21, 2008
"sisal: Agave sisalana (Liliales: Agavaceae): Invasive Plant Atlas of the United States". The University of Georgia – Center for Invasive Species and Ecosystem Health and the National Park Service. Retrieved 29 May 2016.
"World of Sisal". Retrieved 2010-07-12.
Fichtl & Adi 1994, Hepburn & Radloff 1998
Dan Saltzstein (April 21, 2009). "Hoping Mezcal Can Turn the Worm". The New York Times.
Barkha Kumari (August 5, 2021). "The Mysterious Street Snack That Has Baffled Botanists for Decades". Atlas Obscura.
Kadolph, Sara J and Ann L Langford (2002). Textiles (Ninth ed.). New Jersey: Person Education, Inc. ISBN 0-13-025443-6.
"Food and Agricultural commodities production / Countries by commodity". FAOSTAT. Retrieved 29 May 2016.
"Alcaldia de Barquisimeto". Archived from the original on 2007-12-10. Retrieved 2007-10-13.

"Yucatan (Mexico)". Retrieved 2021-05-12.


G. W. Lock, Sisal – Longmans Green & Co., 1969.
Howard Scott Gentry, Agaves of Continental North America – University of Arizona Press, 1982, pp. 628–631.

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