(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on November 26, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)
Hemp has served humans well for thousands of years. Earliest evidence of its use dates back as far as the New Stone Age (15,000 -6,000 B.C.) in the Middle- and Far East, where hemp is thought to have originated. It was one of the first crops ever cultivated by humans and is considered the first source of textile fiber. The oldest extant records mentioning hemp come from central Asia and were made in the third millennium B.C. The Chinese symbol for hemp, for example, is over 4,700 years old (see image at the end of this article).
Throughout history hemp was used as cooking fuel, food (from seeds), fiber, oil (for torches and lamps), and paper making. The ancient Greeks used hemp primarily for cordage and cloth. For many centuries it was the only source of sailcloth and rope used by ships that sailed the western seas. Pioneers covered their prairie schooners and conestoga wagons with hemp canvas. In 1942, U.S. farmers, in support of the war effort, planted 36,000 acres of industrial hemp seed at the government's request. It was used primarily as rope. Even the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are printed on hemp paper and first U.S. flag, sewn by Betsy Ross, was made of hemp cloth.
There are basically two types of hemp. Industrial hemp is differentiated from psychoactive hemp by the percentage of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) it contains: Industrial hemp contains less than 1% while psychoactive hemp contains as much as 20%. Hemp usage discussed here is for industrial hemp only.
Clipper ship with hemp cloth sails
Industrial hemp has a myriad of modern uses. Here is just a sampling:
o Food: Oil for salads and baking, roasted seeds, flour, meal
o Textiles: Clothing, sports gear, canvas, household utility cloths
o Toiletries: Soaps, shampoo, lotions, lipstick, sunscreen, massage oils
o Household: Cordage, candles, rugs, detergent, paint and varnish, pet supplies
o Industrial: Industrial oils, press board
One summer in the late 1960s, at the height of the hippie era, word spread through the hippie culture on the East Coast that free marijuana was to be had for the taking in a former Iowa seven-village commune known as the Amana Colonies. There, it was said, Cannabis sativa grew wild in ditches, along fence rows, and in fields. It was marijuana nirvana.
For more information on this unique building material, you may contact John Stahl at: [email protected]. Mr. Stahl also operates a paper-making facility using hemp as a main ingredient.
I'll conclude this brief visit to the remarkable world of industrial hemp with a few more interesting facts:
o Hemp stalks continue to fuel wok cooking in much of China today.
o The string that connected Ben Franklin to the kite and to the lightening in the clouds was hemp string.
o Paper in colonial times was often made from recycled clothes, sails, ropes, and tents made of hemp.
o The first Levi's blue jeans were made of hemp.
You can find a listing of additional uses of the hemp plant here.
For horticultural information on industrial hemp click here.
Hemp drawing (512 A.D.) courtesy of Wikipedia
© Larry Rettig 2008
Printed at http://davesgarden.com/guides/articles/printstory.php?rid=1886&bn=%2Farticles%2Fview%2F1886