Esparto Grass is a Mediterranean plant which has been used to make all kinds of objects since prehistoric times. The first vegetable fiber remains associated to human activity in the Iberian Peninsula are those of the plant of esparto. A Neolithic grave-good was found at the Cueva de los Murciélagos (Cave of Bats)1 , in the south of Spain.
The reason for its usefulness is hinted on in ist scientific Name 'Stipa Tenacissima': the adjective tenacissima, `very resistent´ in Latin, tells us one of the main characteristics of this plant.
The word esparto comes from Greek, in Latin is espartum. It´s mentioned by Roman historians such as Pliny the Elder, Tito Livio or Varron.
Esparto grass production increased during the XIX 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 scene again.
The plant of Esparto
The esparto, also known as alfa grass, is a perennial plant from the graminacea family. This kind of plants have hollow stems and flowers in spikes. The leaves of the esparto are needle shaped and in a wet environment they keep open, and closed when there is a low level of moisture.This morho-structural and physiological adaptation makes the plant able to cope with hydric stress and hot temperatures. This allows it a successful colonization of adverse semi-arid environments, as this research made by several scientists on Land Restoration concludes. (2)
During Spring the stems with the spikes can reach about one and half metre. It can reproduce sexually and asexually. The plant can live more than 60 years.
The esparto, of Asian origin, is mostly distributed along the western Mediterranean. It grows wild as well as cultivated along the Iberian Peninsula (Portugal and Spain) and the Magreb (North of Africa).
This plant thrives in arid dry habitats , preferably in limestone soils. It forms vast stepperian areas called espartizales or espartales. The espartizales are a very peculiar vegetal formation. The steppes of the esparto are rich in endemic plants, which benefits from the enriched soil beneath, the shade and the little moist the esparto provides. The plant also helps to form biological soil crust (mosses, lichens and cyanobacteria)
There is some fauna associated to the plant such as hares, ants of the Messor genus, and birds like the Bucanetes githagineus ( Trumpeter finch) The birds take a break in their long journeys.
The espartizales have a great ecological value because they prevent the erosion and desertification of the soil. Tussocks of esparto form a vegetal frontier between the Magreb and the Sahara desert.
Many areas of Almería, (a province at the southeast of Andalucía) keep the soil and resist erosion because of this plant. Almería is the province with most desertic areas in the Iberian Peninsula. One of these areas deserves a mention , it is Tabernas.
The desert of Tabernas (3) is famous for many reasons: its settings for numerous films( those of the Spaguetti Westerns, Lawrence of Arabia, Patton, Indiana Jones...) or for its solar plant, the biggest in Europe and a research centre. However, it is not as well known for being an area with many endemic plants which are being studied by biologists. Saddly,the lack of funds are reducing the research on desertic ecosystems that could be useful for other areas of the planet since desertification is one of the effects of the climate change.
Uses of the plant.
Since the Neolithic, Mediterranean people have been using esparto to make domestic utensils such as baskets, sacs, ropes, fishing nets, esteras (round matts) to press wine or oil (4), hives, harnesses for the equines, cheese moulds , paper , pieces of clothing like sandals and dresses, cordoury, carpets, etc. The technique of knitting esparto meant the beginning of the textile confection.
Some of the main consumers of esparto were the Roman, Greek and Carthaginian people, who needed the esparto ropes for their boats.
During the 1960s and 70s, the plastic replaced it but not completely. One important use kept to present is that of making paper for notes and documents. This kind of paper last longer and is not spoiled by moist. (5)
Besides all that, current research on the chemistry of the plant offer new uses. For instance, the lignins of the plant reveal an antioxidant capacity similar to the antioxidants used in the thermoplastic industry. The fiber is also present in automobile or medical industries. (6)
(1) In the Cave of Bats, among other objects made entirely out of esparto, there were sandals, dresses, baskets... They were made using different knitting techniques.
It catches the attention a small basket knitted finely and dyed with different colours. It contained poppy seeds. Arqueologists think that the manure of the bats helped the conservation of the remains. In this link, there are pictures of some of the findings in the cave. http://www.pacopelegrina.com/las-alpujarras/cueva-de-los-murci%C3%A9lagos-albu%C3%B1ol/
(2) Information of the Desert of Tabernas:activities carried out, flora and fauna, etc. http://mediomarino.almediam.org/node/99
(4) Esteras are put into layers. A estera is covered with grounded or smashed olives or grapes, until many esteras form a column. Then a huge wooden press let its weight fall on the column and squeezes the juice out.
(5) Thomas Routledge, A Short Account of the Introduction of Esparto as a Paper-making Material, Thomas Reed and Co (1909)