Furcraea foetida (PROTA)
|Geographic coverage Africa|
|Geographic coverage World|
Furcraea foetida (L.) Haw.
- Protologue: Syn. pl. succ.: 73 (1812).
- Family: Agavaceae (APG: Asparagaceae)
- Chromosome number: 2n = 18, 34, 60
- Agave foetida L. (1753),
- Furcraea gigantea Vent. (1793),
- Furcraea tuberosa Hassk. (1856).
- Mauritius hemp, green aloe, giant cabuya (En).
- Chanvre de Maurice, fourcroya, aloès vert, aloès malgache, aloès créole (Fr).
- Piteira, piteira gigante, piteira amarela, cânhamo de Maurícia (Po).
Origin and geographic distribution
Furcraea foetida is native to tropical America and its natural distribution extends from southern Mexico to the northern and eastern coast of South America and the south-eastern Antilles. It is widely planted and naturalized throughout the tropics. It has been grown commercially as a fibre plant in many regions, including India, Venezuela, Brazil, and St. Helena, and in Africa in Madagascar, Mauritius and South Africa. The plant was probably brought to Mauritius around 1790 and the fibre industry in Mauritius started around 1875. Furcraea foetida was brought to East Africa in the latter part of the 19th century, and it is still found as an escape throughout the region. In West Africa it can still be found around villages. The present distribution of Furcraea foetida in tropical Africa is unclear.
Mauritius hemp was historically used as a fibre plant, but this use is now increasingly rare. The fibre extracted from the leaf can be used to make twine, rope, cloth, tapestries, mats, hammocks and sacks. It can be mixed with other fibres such as sisal (Agave sisalana Perrine) and abaca (Musa textilis Née) for the production of medium grade cordage. Shorter fibres are suitable for brush making and upholstery. Old cordage and textile waste have been used for papermaking.
Furcraea foetida is widely planted as an ornamental plant in gardens, especially variegated varieties. It is also planted to prevent erosion, e.g. in Cape Verde. It is planted in hedges to form an effective barrier against humans and animals, for instance along railway tracks in India and Sri Lanka. In Sri Lanka it is also planted as a firebreak. The peduncles are used for the construction of huts and as poles for fencing. The leaves are used for washing laundry. Ash from burnt stems is used as fertilizer. The use of Furcraea foetida as fuel is reported from Cape Verde. Young plants are grazed by cattle. The species has been found to thrive on green roofs in Singapore, and is hence a possible candidate for planting of green roofs in the tropics and subtropics.
A leaf decoction is externally applied for the treatment of rheumatism and paralysis, and an alcoholic extract of the leaf is recommended as a diuretic in case of oedema. An infusion of the pith of the peduncle is also credited to treat oedema. The leaf sap is applied on purulent wounds, and used on the hair to make it glossy and to prevent hairs from falling out. On Rodrigues (Mauritius) a root decoction is often taken against fever and is considered refreshing. In Puerto Rico extracts from the roots are used as a blood-purifying tonic, and dried leaves are used to control swelling and to promote wound healing. In Brazil root decoctions are taken as a diuretic and against venereal diseases, slightly roasted leaf sections are applied on swellings and tumours, and the sap of roasted leaves is applied on ulcers and wounds.
A leaf decoction is used as an insecticide for domestic animals. In Madagascar the leaf sap is locally used as an insecticide against the rice pest Trichispa sericea. The leaves are also used as fish poison.
Production and international trade
In the 1950s, the area under Furcraea foetida in Mauritius was about 7000 ha, of which about 5600 ha were wild. In the 1950s Mauritius produced about 1000 t of fibre annually, mainly used for production of sacks for sugar. The production has declined drastically since the 1950s, but no recent statistics are available concerning the production or trade of Mauritius hemp.
The fibre content of fresh leaves is (1–)2–2.5(–3.8)%, which is lower than that of sisal or cantala (Agave cantala Roxb.). The ultimate fibre cells are (1–)1.3–3.8(–6.1) mm long and (14–)15–24(–42) μm wide, with thin walls and wide lumina. The longitudinal cell shape is cylindrical, with a polygonal cross-section. Fibre from Mauritius was found to contain 79.8% cellulose and 4.8% lignin. Fibre from various other parts of Africa contained 72–80% cellulose on a dry weight basis. Fibre from Indo-China, retted for 13 days, contained 63% cellulose, 18% pentosans, 12% lignin and 2% ash. Extracted fibres are 1–2 m long, creamy white and fairly lustrous when properly cleaned. The fibre is whiter, longer, finer, and softer than sisal fibre, but it is not as strong. Ropes made of Furcraea foetida fibre show similar resistance to seawater as sisal or abaca ropes, but are not considered suitable for marine cordage because of their lower strength. The fibre absorbs dyes fairly well.
The leaves contain hecogenin (0.3% of the dry leaf weight), a steroidal sapogenin which can be used as a precursor in the partial synthesis of corticosteroids. They also contain tigogenin (0.2%), which is a contaminant of hecogenin.
Various anti-cancer compounds have been isolated from the leaves, the best-known among them furcreastatin, a steroidal saponin composed of hecogenin as the aglycone and a hexasaccharide containing D-galactose, L-rhamnose and four D-glucose residues. Furcreastatin has shown selective cytotoxicity on cells bearing a mutant tumour-inducing gene. Another steroidal saponin isolated from the leaf has shown in-vitro anti-inflammatory activity.
The leaves contain an irritant substance in the sap, so gloves should be worn when working with the plant. The sap is toxic to fish, guinea pigs and rabbits. In field experiments in Madagascar the leaf sap was found to reduce the level of infestation of rice by Trichispa sericea, but the effect was less than that of deltamethrin.
Adulterations and substitutes
For rope-making, Furcraea foetida competes with sisal and abaca, which both possess clear advantages in terms of fibre strength and the availability of good machines for fibre extraction, and with synthetic products. For the production of sacks, jute (Corchorus spp.) and synthetic products are substitutes.
Robust, perennial herb with a short thick stem up to 1.5(–2) m tall, bearing about 50 densely crowded leaves in a rosette. Leaves broadly oblanceolate to lanceolate, up to 2.5 m × 20(–25) cm, apex ending in a reddish, flexible spine 5 mm long, margin with upcurved, robust, reddish spines 4–10 mm long and 1.5–6 cm apart, sometimes upper half or total margin spineless, 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 long (including peduncle); branches dividing several times; peduncle up to 10 m long. Flowers bisexual, pendulous, c. 4 cm long, greenish-white outside, white inside, fragrant; pedicel 5–10 mm long, bearing bracteoles in the axils of which bulbils are produced after flower dehiscence; perianth lobes 6, almost free, ellipsoid, 3 outer ones 25–30 mm × 10–15 mm, 3 inner ones 25–30 mm × 14–18 mm; stamens 6, filaments about 1 cm long, thickened in lower half, anthers 4–5 mm long; ovary inferior, 3-locular, style about 1 cm long, basally much thickened and trilobed, upper half filiform ending in small stigma. Fruit an ellipsoid-trigonous capsule, loculicidally 3-valved, with numerous but rarely produced seeds. Seeds flat, black.
Other botanical information
Furcraea 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, various other spellings of the genus name exist, such as Fourcroea, Fourcroya, Furcroea and Furcroya. Furcraea resembles Agave, but can be distinguished by its flowers, which have a rotate white perianth with the segments barely united at the base, stamens shorter than the perianth, and filaments and style thickened below the middle.
In Mauritius Furcraea foetida fibre is mainly obtained from var. willemettiana Roem., which differs from the species type 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’, with broad, spineless, variegated leaves, is considered particularly attractive.
Furcraea selloa K.Koch yields a fibre identical to that of Furcraea foetida and is also widely grown as an ornamental plant. It is native to Central America, where it is locally grown as a fibre plant. It is also grown in Réunion and Mauritius and it has been introduced into West Africa where it has naturalized. Like Furcraea foetida it contains the steroidal sapogenins hecogenin and tigogenin, and the steroidal saponin furcreastatin. Methanolic leaf extracts have shown activity against Schistosoma mansoni, the causal agent of bilharzia (schistosomiasis).
Growth and development
Furcraea foetida is a monocarpic plant, dying after flowering, and has a life span of (5–)7–10(–20) years, in which about 200 leaves are produced. The leaves continue to elongate for about 5 months after bending away from the central spindle, resulting in longer leaves than those found in sisal, whose leaves do not elongate much after leaving the spindle. At flowering, long slender poles are produced, with many flowers which open few at a time over several weeks. 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. Gravity is the only known natural dispersal method of bulbils, though the existence of isolated wild individuals suggest other means, such as fruit bats. Furcraea foetida uses the Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) photosynthetic pathway, fixing CO2 during the night and incorporating it into carbohydrates during the day.
High temperatures and a semi-humid environment are needed for optimum growth. In Mauritius Furcraea foetida grows in areas with an average annual rainfall of about 1000 mm, with most precipitation from December to March. In Cape Verde it grows from sea level up to 1400 m altitude, while in Malawi good results were obtained up to 900 m altitude. Furcraea foetida is resistant to salt spray, short droughts, and temperatures down to –4°C or even –7°C. The plant grows in full sun as well as in partial shade. It grows well in any well-drained soil, appearing even on rocks, cliffs, and sometimes in tree crotches. Competition with grasses, weeds, shrubs, and trees may limit growth, and young plants are grazed and even uprooted by cattle. Mature plants are ignored by livestock. Mauritius hemp has become an invasive weed in some areas, for instance in Réunion and Mauritius.
Propagation and planting
Furcraea foetida is propagated from bulbils, and may be raised in nurseries. A sample of 100 bulbils in Puerto Rico had an average weight of 2.7 g per bulbil, with individual weights ranging from 0.2 g to 16.3 g. Plants raised from these bulbils were 18 cm tall after 1 month, and were ready for planting out into the field in 1–2 months. In Mauritius Furcraea foetida is planted at a density of 3000–7500 plants/ha, preferably in double rows.
Young plants need weeding during the first months after planting, but require little care thereafter. Plantations in Mauritius are not weeded, but lanes between double rows of plants are cleared of vegetation just before harvest.
To control invasive Furcraea foetida plants, they are dug up or sprayed with 2,4-D or triclopyr. To prevent spreading, the inflorescence is cut before bulbils are formed.
Diseases and pests
Furcraea foetida is a host of the Mexican sisal weevil (Scyphophorus interstitialis), a serious insect pest of sisal, which in tropical Africa has been recorded in Kenya and Tanzania.
The first harvest 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. Upon harvesting, the terminal spine and the butt of each leaf are trimmed, and the leaves are tied in bundles.
In Mauritius in the 1950s, cultivated Furcraea foetida yielded on average 3.7 t/ha of fibre per cutting, from 150,000–200,000 leaves. Yields on certain estates reached 5 t/ha per cutting, and 2.5 t/ha per year. Yields from wild plants were about a third of those of cultivated plants.
Handling after harvest
Fibre extraction is usually achieved by decortication and retting. Extraction is best undertaken immediately after harvest, as dried leaves are harder to decorticate. Decortication can be manual or mechanical, but available machines are less efficient than sisal decorticators. Decorticated fibres may be retted for 2 or more days to remove non-fibre matter. Adding soap during retting improves the colour of the fibre. The retted fibres are washed and sun-dried, and may then be brushed to soften them and add lustre. Finally the fibres are graded and baled.
In view of the wide distribution of Furcraea foetida, it seems not threatened with genetic erosion in the foreseeable future.
Breeding is rendered difficult due to the infrequent production of fertile seeds.
Mauritius hemp is clearly inferior to sisal and abaca for rope-making, both in terms of strength and in terms of the availability of machines and infrastructure for processing. It also faces competition from jute and synthetics. Hence, in terms of fibre production for rope-making or sacks, Mauritius hemp has little future. Unless its fibre can offer special qualities for specialty products such as clothing, paper pulp, or artisan work, Furcraea foetida will continue to diminish in importance, both in Mauritius and in the rest of the world. However, the anticancer potential of furcreastatin may create a new use of the species on the world stage. The low level of maintenance needed for Furcraea foetida makes it an attractive species for use as green fencing, for which it is already used in many countries. Its hardiness also makes it a potentially attractive plant for green roofs in the tropics and subtropics.
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Sources of illustration
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- G. Vaughan, Museo Arqueológico de Tunja, UPTC, Avenida Central del Norte, Tunja, Boyacá, Colombia
Correct citation of this article
Vaughan, G., 2011. Furcraea foetida (L.) Haw. [Internet] Record from PROTA4U. Brink, M. & Achigan-Dako, E.G. (Editors). PROTA (Plant Resources of Tropical Africa / Ressources végétales de l’Afrique tropicale), Wageningen, Netherlands. <http://www.prota4u.org/search.asp>.
Accessed 8 July 2021.
- See the Prota4U database.