Improvement status: Cultivar
Seeds per packet: ~50
Germination tested 11/2021: 83%
Life cycle: Annual
'Whitten' is an exciting kenaf we are thrilled to add to the catalogue. Released by the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station in 2005, and named after the late U.S. Representative Jamie Whitten, who retired from Congress in 1995 as the longest serving member of Congress in history (53 years and 2 months, a record since surpassed by Michigan's John Dingell). It is maintained by the USDA's Plant Genetic Resources Conservation Unit in Griffin, Georgia. We got our seed from Bob Lawrason of Kenaf Partners USA.
According to the USDA: Whitten, known experimentally as DRC96-1, was selected for: 1. juvenile (simple) leaf shape [this means it never develops the normally characteristic kenaf leaf-shape that mimics cannabis, which has led to police action against kenaf farmers in the past], 2. plant height, a gross indicator of yield, 3. resistance to powdery mildew caused by Leveillula taurica, and 4. extended juvenility [which means it doesn't start putting energy into seed production until later in the season, allowing it to attain more height and herefore produce more fiber]. Average total stalk yield of Whitten is greater than 'Everglades 41'. Mean bast fiber percentage is 34.3%. Determination of bast yield per hectare as a function of total stalk yield indicates higher bast turnout (per hectare) from Whitten."
Kenaf is among the oldest domesticated crops in the world, known in cultivation since at least 4000 years ago. It is believed to originate in Africa (possibly in Sudan), but there's still a great deal of debate about its origins. It was used in ancient Egypt (for cordage, clothes, bags, even ship-sails) and eventually became so popular around the world that there are over 100 known words for it. Its primary use has probably always been as a fiber crop for cordage, but it also has edible leaves (a food in India, known as gongura, especially popular as the base for a hot pickled condiment) and oil-rich edible seeds. The dried stalks have long been used as a fuel source, like firewood, and it is now being turned into high-tech, low carbon-footprint building materials that mimic wood.
Perhaps most excitingly, kenaf is close to an ideal plant for making paper. This hibiscus beat out hundreds of other plants in a USDA study seeking to identify the best alternatives to pine pulp for making newsprint paper. Kenaf won because it makes very fine paper, with 20% less energy than wood pulp requires, and with no clear-cutting of forests. It was recently used in Japan to make the world's thinnest paper. It's superior to pine in every way — producing more pulp per acre, in a single season instead of over many years, even on degraded land, with little fertilizer and no pesticides needed, all while becoming higher quality paper too — but the glaring problem is that we don't have a kenaf processing infrastructure in place and not enough farmers grow it to justify building such infrastructure.
This is a plant worthy of serious investment. Beyond paper, it has literally thousands of other uses (Bob has tallied over 25,000!) — basically the same as industrial hemp, plus a load more. In the face of climate change, kenaf should be a prime candidate for government intervention to encourage its growth. Wouldn't it be great if we subsidized regeneratively-grown kenaf (among other orphan crops) instead of GMO corn and soy?
Kenaf is very easy to grow. But as its Latin name indicates, it can be a dead-ringer for cannabis, at least until its big, beautiful, classic-hibiscus flowers unfurl. (This problem exists for most varieties, like the 'Minghong 8234' we also offer, but this 'Whitten' has nearly round leaves that look nothing like cannabis — and make this variety extra- promising as a food crop too.)
In the spirit of experimentation, we hope that by making these seeds more accessible more and more growers across the country will try growing this once-and-future important crop. We are particularly curious to learn how far north this variety will set seed, so please get in touch and let us know how it does for you!
GROWING TIPS: Kenaf is relatively easy to direct seed, and should germinate quickly (within a few days). We usually start plants in the greenhouse and transplant after all danger of frost has passed. Kenaf likes it hot and won't really take off until the heat of the summer. Rows could be 3 feet apart, with plants 2-6 inches apart for fiber, or 1 to 3 feet apart for seeds and leaves. Most varieties have minute irritating spines, like okra (its close cousin), so we recommend using gloves when harvesting.