The American Cyclopædia (1879)/Ramie
RAMIE, one of the East Indian names, and the one generally adopted in this country, for the plant producing the fibre called China grass. Its botanical name is Bœhmeria nivea, and it is found either cultivated or wild throughout the greater part of tropical and eastern Asia; the genus (named after G. R. Böhmer, a Wittenberg botanist of the last century) belongs to the urticnceæ or nettle family, and is nearly related to the true nettles; but the plants are not armed with stings, and the fertile flowers, instead of a two- to five-parted calyx (see Nettle), have a tubular calyx, which closely surrounds the small nut-like fruit; one species, a coarse nettle-like weed (B. cylindria), is very common in moist shady places most parts of the United States. The ramie is a perennial, somewhat shrubby plant, growing 4 ft. high, and throwing up numerous stems as thick as the little finger, which bear opposite, pointed, serrate leaves, 6 in. long by 4 in. broad, on long hairy petioles; their upper surface is
Ramie (Bœhmeria nivea).
dark green, but underneath they are covered with a very white down, suggesting the specific name nivea, snowy, which makes the contrast between the two surfaces very marked. The inconspicuous flowers are in little clusters upon axillary stalks. A variety, candicans, which has been called B. tenacissima, is cultivated in the same countries as the type, from which it differs in being more robust and in having the under surface of the leaves scarcely whitened. The useful portion is the fibre of the inner bark, which in eastern countries is stripped from the stems in two long pieces, cleared of extraneous matter, dried, and assorted according to the fineness of the fibre, which depends in great measure upon the rapidity with which the plant grew. For weaving, the fibres, after being bleached, are slowly picked apart by the fingers into threads coarser or finer according to the intended fabric. This plant has been used in China and other eastern countries from time immemorial to make a great variety of fabrics, some having the fineness and brilliancy of silk; the woven material was early an article of commerce, and considerable quantities of the fibre are now imported by England and France and used as a substitute for or to mix with silk. In warm countries three crops of stems are obtained in the year, the second affording the finest fibre; it may be raised from seed, but the usual method is to divide up the old plants; the sets are planted in rows about 5 ft. apart, and very thickly in the rows, as straight stems are obtained only when they are crowded. It needs a rich and well drained soil, and a climate where there are no hard frosts; in northern China the planters take up the roots and keep them in pits over winter. The proper time for cutting is indicated by the turning brown of the stems at the base. The plant was introduced into Jamaica in 1854, and in 1855 was sent to the botanic garden at Washington; but no serious attempt was made to engage in its culture till 1867, when an excitement like that formerly caused by morus multicaulis seemed imminent. On account of the deranged condition of labor southern planters were eager for any crop which could be raised with less manual labor than cotton; great stories were told of the productiveness and profit of ramie, and a lot of plants brought from Mexico, where it had been introduced a few years before, were sold at high prices. For a few years those who raised plants for sale found it profitable, but when the product became considerable the heretofore unconsidered problem of the disposal of the crop came up; to prepare the fibre in the eastern manner by hand was impossible, and the crude material was too bulky for export. Machines were invented for separating the fibre without encouraging success, and the excitement subsided.—The seeds of the wood nettle, Laportea Canadensis, a tall, coarse, stinging, nettle-like plant, have been offered as those of the "American ramie."