The sleepy teenager on the checkout at my local supermarket looked at the bags I’d brought with me for my groceries (above, click to enlarge). She picked up one of them and said: “What’s this made of?” “It’s burlap” says I. “What’s burlap?” she asked. Hmmm… Good question. And is it the same as hessian – which is the word we use for this rough sacking material in Britain?
This is one of those things that I must have known in my student days – well, I presume I did - but now I can’t even remember whether I never knew it all or have just forgotten. Surely it’s not made of hemp, that seems vaguely familiar…
Anyway, I had a rummage through my thousands of plant books… then I looked a bit harder and I finally came up with the answer.
First off, hessian and burlap are the same thing. Secondly, it’s made from the fibers in the skin of the jute plant (we’ll get to that) although it was once also made from hemp or sisal fibers. Hemp is cannabis sativa, while sisal is Agave sisalana – another species of which brings us tequila! So it has good connections.
Jute is derived from two species of Corchorus (right, click to enlarge), which are loosely related to mallows and hollyhocks. And it turns out that the areas of the world in which it can be grown are limited by the fact that it needs both a tropical climate and standing water. But the amount grown in India and Bangladesh is so huge that it’s second only to cotton as the world most grown fiber plant.
Combining strength with being permeable to air and moisture – says he in text book mode – hessian/burlap sacks have long been used for packing and carrying potatoes, coffee beans and other bulk agricultural crops. In North America, but rarely now in Britain, burlap is also used to wrap the rootballs of field grown trees and shrubs – hence the term B&B – balled and burlapped. In Britain container growing has largely taken over. But burlap/hessian has found a new use in re-useable shopping bags.
And the two bags in the picture? One from Terrain, the stylish American garden store, and one from Marshalls, the British vegetable seed company. Both bags are in use every week at our local supermarket.