SABUTAN: A highly priced fiber in the world of high fashion

from Philstar.com by J. Restituto published on October 1, 2006

Found only in the wild, in the forests of the Sierra Madre mountains in Aurora, sabutan is highly priced in the world of high fashion.

To ensure the supply of rare sabutan fiber, the Aklan State University (ASU) here is the first to attempt its culture in the laboratory. And it has succeeded.

The two-meter-long sabutan leaves are soft and shiny, turning green just before harvest. They are stripped into fibers that are very fine and smooth but strong in texture.

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SABUTAN: A highly priced fiber in the world of high fashion By J. Restituto The Philippine STAR 10/01/2006

BANGA, Aklan – Found only in the wild, in the forests of the Sierra Madre mountains in Aurora, sabutan is highly priced in the world of high fashion.

To ensure the supply of rare sabutan fiber, the Aklan State University (ASU) here is the first to attempt its culture in the laboratory. And it has succeeded.

The two-meter-long sabutan leaves are soft and shiny, turning green just before harvest. They are stripped into fibers that are very fine and smooth but strong in texture.

Bright, eye-catching colorfast dyes give the more sophisticated finish to stylish fashion products.

Sabutan fibers are woven into hats, baskets, handbags, fans, wallets, wall decors, placemats, coasters, fancy slippers and home and Christmas decors. Traditionally, they are also made into mats, toys, decorative flowers and curtains.

The hand-woven bags especially have designer trims such as leather, snakeskin, suede and wood. They are sold in Beverly Hills boutiques in Hollywood and hailed by fashion magazines from Milan to Manila.

Processing is hard work and manual: cutting the leaves, trimming thorny edges, stripping, sorting, drying and flattening. In the 1950s, practically every home in Aurora had a sabutan weaver. Today there are some 10,000 weavers left, most of them peasant women.

Provincial trade officials put the export of sabutan accessories at $160 million annually — sold mostly in the United States, Japan, Australia, Germany, Italy, Spain, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Taiwan and as far as Uruguay. One local company produces nearly 44,000 hats and bags a year valued in the millions of pesos and sold in New Jersey (New York), Japan and London.

A species of pandan, sabutan grows from two to four meters tall but rarely produces flowers. It has not been found to bear fruits.

Being rare makes it very expensive. So much so that it is over harvested and what’s left of the sabutan stands could be gone in a few short years unless something is done to arrest its depletion.

“It is endangered because its fiber is very expensive,” says Mike Ibisate, a researcher at the ASU College of Agriculture, Forestry and Ecological Sciences. “Because natural seed production is threatened, its range is shrinking.”

Once abundant in the wild, even between rows of coconut trees, the fiber was so highly in demand that over-harvesting has left less than 50 hectares of sabutan stands in mountain slopes, mostly in San Luis and Baler towns. Coffee and citrus plantations also took over sabutan lands.

It was threatened with extinction unless cloning stepped in, says Ibisate who made the successful culture of sabutan in the laboratory.

Sabutan (Pandanus sabutan Blanco) comes from suckers that grow in semi-wild conditions. Very rarely — because it is unsuccessful most of the time — the traditional way of propagating it is by replanting the suckers.

“We can use tissue culture and produce plenty of seedlings but it will take time to produce cloned suckers in a natural stand,” Ibisate says.

Ibisate has brought the problem to the laboratory and — with research assistants Benny A. Palma and Elsa I. Abayon — tried to induce the callus to grow from a leaf.

“The callus, or bud if you will, could be used as a planting material for mass sabutan cultivation,” he explains.

To induce callus growth, he grew them in a laboratory (Petri) dish full of hormones. The sabutan leaf was cut and put in a growing medium that was supplemented with, among others, the chemical benzyl adenine — and 15 percent coconut water and five percent sucrose.

The growing medium encouraged large cells (callus) to form organs like the leaves and roots — all potential planting materials that can be mass produced and ultimately cultivated into hectares of sabutan stands in Aurora, the Sierra Madres and, to a lesser extent, Quezon province.

At the ASU laboratory, Ibisate struck green gold. Only after a month of culture in the dark, sabutan leaves that were cut and put in the growing medium expanded and produced callus. Those cultured in the light developed not callus but a clump from the lateral bud with pale green tissues.

“We now know that inducing the callus to grow in the dark is possible,” Ibisate concludes. “The leaf can be induced to form a callus through in vitro production.”

The callus formation is just the first stage of a long research and development process. Stage two, which is ongoing, is to produce plantlets from the callus.

If this is successful, the plantlets will be nurtured for 1.5 years in trial nurseries “prior to massive propagation followed by widespread distribution in Aurora,” says Ibisate. – Inter News&Features

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