The kenaf plant is one of the most promising alternatives to wood for paper production. It is a herbaceous annual related to cotton and okra and a member of the mallow family which originated in West Africa. It was traditionally cultivated in Africa and Asia for rope.
Kenaf is a 4,000 year old plant, but it wasn't until the 1940's, when World War II stopped all imports from Asia, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) began to research it. The USDA chose kenaf from among 500 candidates as the most promising non-wood fiber for pulp and paper production in 1960. .
The USDA picked kenaf because of its rapid growth, high yield, and exceptional papermaking characteristics. Kenaf reaches 12-18 feet in 150 days. It takes the southern pine 14-17 years to reach a harvestable size. Kenaf also yields more fiber per acre than the southern pine. It produces 5-10 tons of dry fiber per acre. That is 3-5 times as much as the southern pine. Kenaf fibers require less chemicals, heat, and time to pulp because thy are not as tough as wood pulp and contain 20% less lignin, a resin that binds the cellulose fibers in plants or trees together, than does the southern pine. Toxic chemicals such as chlorine are predominantly used to felinity and bleach wood pulp. Kenaf can be pulped and bleached quickly and easily with harmless chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide. .
The kenaf plant has a beautiful flower. Flowering can last three to four weeks, but each individual flower only lasts one day. At the end of the growing season, the flower drops off and leaves behind a seed pod. The seeds are unable to mature in most parts of the U.S. Because they come from Africa, the seeds require an additional 60-90 days of frost free conditions to reach the point of germination. This means kenaf can't run wild across the country like a weed. Unfortunately, this causes some problems for developers trying to insure a consistent supply of seeds for next years crop.