Furcraea foetida (PROSEA)

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Plant Resources of South-East Asia
List of species

Furcraea foetida (L.) Haw.

Protologue: Syn. pl. succ.: 73 (1812).
Family: Agavaceae
Chromosome number: 2n= 18, 34, 60


Agave foetida L. (1753), Furcraea gigantea Vent. (1793), F. tuberosa Hassk. (1856).

Vernacular names

  • Mauritius hemp, green aloe (En). Chanvre de Maurice, aloès vert, fourcroya (Fr)
  • Vietnam: giwa dai hai.

Origin and geographic distribution

F. foetida is native to tropical South America and it is distributed from southern Mexico (Yucatán) to the northern and eastern coast of South America and the south-eastern Antilles. It has been introduced into many tropical and subtropical countries as an ornamental, hedge plant or fibre plant and is often naturalized. In some areas it has become a noxious weed. Experimental plantings for fibre production have been established in many regions including South-East Asia, e.g. in Java and the Riau Archipelago (Indonesia), in Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore, and in Vietnam. It has been grown on a commercial scale in Mauritius, Madagascar and St Helena and in India, South Africa, Venezuela and Brazil. Nowadays it is mainly planted as an ornamental and in hedges, e.g. in Java, where it is often grown in gardens and parks.


Fibre from the leaf of F. foetida can be used for making twine, ropes, cloth and sacks. It can be woven into tapestries and mats. It has been used in admixture with other fibres such as those from abaca ( Musa textilis Née) and sisal ( Agave sisalana Perrine) for the production of medium grade cordage. F. foetida hedges form an effective barrier against humans and animals and are, for instance, planted along railway tracks in India and Sri Lanka.

Production and international trade

No recent production or trade statistics for F. foetida are available. In the 1950s the area under F. foetida in Mauritius, the main producing country, was about 7000 ha (of which about 5600 ha were wild), giving an annual production of about 1000 t fibre, mainly used locally for the production of sugar bags. Since then production has declined.


The fibre content of fresh F. foetida leaves is (1.0-)2.0-2.5(-3.8)%, which is less than that of sisal and cantala ( Agave cantala Roxb.). The extracted fibres are 1-2 m long. The ultimate fibre cells are (1.0-)1.3-3.8(-6.1) mm long and (14-)15-24(-42) μm wide, with rather thin walls and wide lumina. The longitudinal cell shape is approximately cylindrical, the cross-sectional shape of cell and lumen is polygonal. F. foetida fibre is longer, finer, softer and whiter than sisal fibre, but it is not as strong. It takes dyes fairly well. The deterioration in sea water of rope made of F. foetida fibre is similar to that of rope made of sisal or abaca, but because of its low strength, F. foetida rope is not considered suitable for marine cordage. In studies in Indo-China in the 1940s, the fibre of F. foetida , separated by retting for 13 days, contained 63% cellulose, 18% pentosans, 12% lignin and 2% ash.

The leaves contain an irritant substance in the sap and handling the crop requires protective gloves. The juice is toxic to fish, guinea pigs and rabbits. The leaves of F. foetida contain hecogenin (0.3% of the leaf dry weight), a steroid sapogenin which can be used as a precursor in the partial synthesis of corticosteroids. However, the leaves also contain tigogenin (0.2%), a contaminant of hecogenin. Furcreastatin, a steroid saponin consisting of hecogenin as the aglycone and a hexasaccharide, has been isolated from Thai F. foetida leaves and has shown cytotoxicity on mutated mouse fibroblasts at lower doses than on the parental cell line. It has also shown cytotoxic activity on various human carcinoma cell lines.

Adulterations and substitutes

For rope-making F. foetida competes with sisal and abaca, with the latter two possessing clear advantages in terms of fibre strength and the availability of good machines for fibre extraction. For the production of sacks, jute ( Corchorus spp.) and synthetic products are substitutes.


A robust, perennial herb with a short thick stem up to 50 cm tall, bearing about 50 densely crowded leaves. Leaves broadly oblanceolate to lanceolate, larger ones 1-2.5 m × 12-20 cm, margin usually with upcurved, robust spines 4-10 mm long, redbrown, 1.5-6 cm apart, sometimes upper half or total leaf spineless, apex ending in flexible spine 5 mm long, tough-fibrous, glossy green, lower surface manifestly rough in the middle of the upper half, leaves fetid when bruised. Inflorescence a terminal panicle, 6-13 m tall; peduncle 6-10 m long; pedicels bearing bracteoles in the axils of which bulbils are produced; flowers bisexual, about 4 cm long, greenish-white outside, white inside; perianth lobes 6, almost free, ellipsoid, 3 outer ones 11-14 mm wide, 3 inner ones 14-18 mm; stamens 6, filaments about 1 cm long, thickened in lower half, anthers 4-5 mm long; pistil with inferior, 3-locular ovary bearing many ovules, style about 1 cm long, basally much thickened and trilobed, upper half filiform ending in small stigma. Fruit a capsule, ellipsoid-trigonous, loculicidally 3-valved, with numerous but rarely produced seeds. Seeds flat.

Growth and development

F. foetida is a monocarpic plant, dying after flowering, and has a life span of 7-10(-16) years, in which about 200 leaves are formed. The leaves continue to elongate for about 5 months after they leave the central spindle, resulting in longer leaves than those found in sisal, whose leaves do not elongate much after leaving the spindle. At flowering, which in Java may occur at any time of the year, long slender poles are produced, with bisexual flowers. Pollination is probably by moths and bees. The plants do not form suckers and they rarely set seed, but bulbils are formed in the inflorescence and they develop roots after they fall to the ground.

Other botanical information

Furcraea Vent. is a poorly known tropical American genus with about 20 species of arid and semi-arid regions, formerly often classified in the larger family Amaryllidaceae . In taxonomic literature, orthographic variants of the name Furcraea can be found, including e.g. Fourcroea , Fourcroya , Furcroea and Furcroya . Furcraea resembles Agave L. but can be distinguished by its flowers, which have a rotate white perianth, with stamens shorter than the perianth, and filaments and style thickened below the middle.

In Mauritius, fibre is mainly obtained from F. foetida var. willemettiana Roem., known locally as "common aloe" or "aloe creole", which differs from the species type ("aloe malgache") by its leaves, which are smaller, with short inconspicuous spines at the leaf tip, more sharply upwards curving marginal spines and a higher fibre content. The ornamental cultivar "Mediopicta" has broad, spineless, variegated leaves and is considered particularly attractive.

F. selloa K. Koch, grown as a fibre plant in Central America, yields a fibre identical to that of F. foetida ; it is grown as an ornamental in Peninsular Malaysia. Other Furcraea species cultivated for their fibres in tropical America and occasionally elsewhere include F. andina Trel., F. cabuya Trel., F. cahum Trel., F. guatemalensis Trel., F. hexapetala (Jacq.) Urb., F. humboldtiana Trel., F. macrophylla Baker and F. quicheensis Trel.


High temperatures and semi-humid conditions are essential for optimal growth of F. foetida . In Mauritius it occurs in areas with an average annual rainfall of about 1000 mm, with most precipitation from December to March. F. foetida seems to prefer shade. It grows well on many soils, but prefers fertile sandy clays.

Propagation and planting

F. foetida is propagated by bulbils, which may be raised in nurseries and transplanted into the field after about a year. In Mauritius it is planted at a density of 5000-7500 plants/ha in double rows.


F. foetida plantations in Mauritius are not weeded, but the lanes between the rows are cleared just before harvest.

Diseases and pests

F. foetida is a host of the Mexican sisal weevil ( Scyphophorys interstitialis ), the most important insect pest of sisal.


The first harvest of F. foetida usually takes place when the plants are 3-4 years old and subsequent harvests every (8-)18-36 months thereafter. At each harvest 30-40 leaves are cut and 5 leaves are left on the plant. After a leaf is harvested, the terminal spine is cut off and the butt trimmed, after which the leaves are bundled and tied.


Recent yield data are not available, but average fibre yields of cultivated F. foetida in Mauritius in the 1950s were about 3.7 t/ha per cutting, from about 150 000-200 000 leaves, whereas yields from wild plants were about one-third of those from cultivated plants. On some estates fibre yields of 5 t/ha per harvest and 2.5 t/ha per year have been obtained. In Java it was estimated, on the basis of experimental plantings, that one hectare with 1270 plants would yield about 250 000 leaves and 5 t fibre over the life cycle of the crop.

Handling after harvest

Fibre extraction of F. foetida is normally by decortication and retting. The fibres must be extracted as soon as possible after harvest because drying makes decortication more difficult. Decortication is by hand or by machine, but there are no machines with an output and efficiency level for F. foetida similar to that of sisal decorticators. After decortication, the fibres, still containing extraneous matter, may be retted for 2 or more days. Soap may be added to the retting tanks to improve the colour. After decortication and retting the extracted fibres are washed and dried in the sun, after which they may be brushed to make them softer and more lustrous. Finally they are graded and baled for the market.

Genetic resources and breeding

No germplasm collections or breeding programmes of F. foetida are known to exist. Breeding is difficult because of the general inability of F. foetida to produce seed, though seedlings have on occasion been obtained.


In view of the competition from jute for the manufacture of sacks, from sisal and abaca for rope-making, and from synthetic products for both, there is little prospect for revitalization of commercial F. foetida production in Mauritius or elsewhere. Experimental plantings have shown that F. foetida can be grown for fibre in South-East Asia. However, it seems not worthwhile re-establishing it as a fibre crop for local use, since superior fibre crops such as sisal and abaca are already available in the region.


  • Backer, C.A. & Bakhuizen van den Brink Jr, R.C., 1968. Flora of Java. Vol. 3. Wolters-Noordhoff, Groningen, the Netherlands. pp. 164-165.
  • Burkill, I.H., 1966. A dictionary of the economic products of the Malay Peninsula. Revised reprint. 2 volumes. Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. pp. 1056-1058.
  • Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, 1956. The wealth of India: a dictionary of Indian raw materials and industrial products. Vol. 4. Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, New Delhi, India. pp. 96-97.
  • Itabashi, M., Segawa, K., Ikeda, Y., Kondo, S., Naganawa, H., Koyano, T. & Umezawa, K., 2000. A new bioactive steroidal saponin, furcreastatin, from the plant Furcraea foetida. Carbohydrate Research 323(1-4): 57-62.
  • Kirby, R.H., 1963. Vegetable fibres: botany, cultivation and utilization. Leonard Hill, London, United Kingdom & Interscience Publishers, New York, United States. pp. 266-283.
  • Ligtvoet, W., 1900. De eerste Aloë-vezelbereiding op Java [The first Aloë-fibre production on Java]. Teysmannia 10: 476-490, 609-611.


S. Brotonegoro