Esparto grass is a Mediterranean plant of Asian origin which has been used to make all kinds of objects since prehistoric times. The Esparto, also known as halfah grass, is a perennial plant from the Gramineae family. The word Esparto comes from Greek, in Latin it is Espartum. It's mentioned by Roman historians such as Pliny the Elder, Titus Livius and Varro.
Esparto plants have hollow stems and spiky flowers. The leaves are needle-shaped; in a wet environment they keep open, and close when there is low level moisture. This morpho-structural and physiological adaptation makes the plant able to cope with hydric stress and hot temperatures. This allows it a successful colonisation of adverse semi-arid environments, as research made by several scientists on land restoration concludes. During Spring the stems with the spikes can reach about one and half metres. The plant can reproduce sexually and asexually, and it can live more than 60 years.
The reason for its usefulness is hinted at in its scientific name Stipa tenacissima: the adjective tenacissima, (Latin meaning 'very resistant'), tells us one of the main characteristics of this plant. The first vegetable fibre remains associated with human activity in the Iberian Peninsula are those of the Esparto plant. A Neolithic grave-good was found at the Cueva de los Murciélagos (Cave of Bats)1, in the south of Spain.
Esparto grass production increased during the 19th Century, mainly to make paper. With the introduction of plastic and the dereliction of rural areas during the 1960s due to emigration, its production started to decline. Nowadays, restoration of semi-arid lands and the interest in natural resources and decorative objects made out of Esparto grass have brought the plant to the forefront again.
The Esparto is mostly distributed along the western Mediterranean. It grows wild as well as cultivated along the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) and the Maghreb (north of Africa). This plant thrives in arid dry habitats, preferably in limestone soils. It forms vast steppic fields (steppes) called espartizales (Esparto field) or espartales. The espartizales have a very peculiar vegetal formation. The steppes of the Esparto are rich in endemic plants, which benefit from the enriched soil, the shade and the little moisture the Esparto provides. The plant also helps to form biological soil crust (mosses, lichens and cyanobacteria). There are some fauna associated with the plant such as hares, harvester ants of the Messor2 genus, and some seed-eating birds. The trumpeter finch (Bucanetes githagineus) takes a break in its long journey to feast upon the Esparto seed.
The espartizales have great ecological value because they prevent the erosion and desertification of the soil. Tussocks of Esparto grass form a vegetation barrier between the Maghreb and the Sahara desert. Many areas of Almería, (a province in the southeast of Andalucía), keeps its soil and resists erosion thanks to this plant. Almería is the province with most desert areas in the Iberian Peninsula.
One of these areas, Tabernas, deserves a mention. Tabernas Desert is famous for many reasons: its setting for numerous films (Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Indiana Jones, Spaghetti Westerns, etc), its solar plant (the biggest in Europe) and research centre. However, it is not as well known for being an area with many endemic plants which are being studied by biologists. Sadly, the lack of funds is reducing the research on desert ecosystems that could be useful for other areas of the planet since desertification is one of the effects of climate change.
Uses of the Plant
Since the Neolithic, Mediterranean people have been using Esparto to make domestic utensils such as baskets, sacks, rope, fishing nets, esteras (round mats) to press wine or oil3, beehives, harnesses for the equines, cheese moulds, paper, sandals and items of clothing like dresses. The technique of weaving Esparto to create corduroy and carpets, etc., meant the beginning of the textile industry.
Some of the main users of Esparto were the Roman, Greek and Carthaginian people, who needed Esparto ropes for their boats. During the 1960s and 70s, plastic replaced it but not completely. One important use kept until the present is that of making paper for books and important documents. Esparto paper is more durable than ordinary wood pulp paper as it lasts longer and isn't spoilt by moisture.
The fibre also has uses that range from medicine to the automobile industry. Besides all of this, current research on the chemistry of the plant offers new uses, eg the lining of the plant reveals an antioxidant capacity similar to the antioxidants used in the thermoplastic industry. This ancient plant, which has been in use for at least 7,000 years, still has a future in human material culture.