Hibiscus cannabinus is a member of the flowering plants division known as Magnoliophyta, further divided into the Hibiscus L. genus of the Malvaceae family of plants. Although classified in the same family with the ornamental hibiscus bush, few characteristics beyond flower color and leaf shape are common to both the ornamental shrub and hibiscus cannabinus. Characteristics of the hibiscus cannabinus plant include long woody stems up to 10 feet (3.5 meters) with high branches; purple, white, or yellow flowers; and small fruits measuring approximately ½ inch (2 cm) in diameter. When planted in fields, hibiscus cannabinus resembles jute or bamboo in that stalks are tall, slender, and green with a thin layer of outer bark. Plants are annual or biennial, although in rare conditions, may appear as perennials.
Better known as kenaf, hibiscus cannabinus is primarily grown for fiber, livestock feed, biofuel, seed oils, engineered wood products, housing insulation, and paper. The plant, which is believed to have originated in Asia, is now cultivated in China, the United States, India, Korea, Bangladesh, South Africa, Mexico, Thailand, and other countries. In the United States, the primary uses are livestock bedding and fiber for paper. Korea, India, and China use the fibers in textiles, rope making, and paper. Leaves of the hibiscus cannabinus are also a popular food for human consumption known as gongoora in certain countries.
Using kenaf plants for ropes and other textiles has been a common practice for thousands of years. Egyptians used kenaf fibers to make boat sails and other textiles in ancient times. Leaves were used to feed both people and animals. Bast fiber — the fibers garnered from the outer bark of the hibiscus cannabinus plant — were used in cords, ropes, and storage bags for grains or other crops. Some cultures still use similar methods as the ancient Egyptians to remove the bast fibers for rope and other cordage, as well as serving similar hibiscus cannabinus leaf dishes.
Beside using bast fibers for rope, both the outer bast fibers and the inner core fibers are used to make a bimodal pulp similar to hardwood pulp for paper. In comparison to pine pulp, the common pulp used to make most paper in the United States and Europe, pulp from the hibiscus cannabinus is cheaper to obtain and process. During the mid to late 1990s, newsprint made of kenaf fiber pulp obtained from U.S. and Canadian hibiscus cannabinus growers proved stronger and required less bleaching than pine pulp newsprint.