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Costly Cotton

By Audrey Stallsmith

cotton plant

The most important material was failing at Glasgow, the cotton famine became every day more threatening, thousands of workmen were reduced to living upon public charity.

Jules Verne, The Blockade Runners

Cotton has probably contributed more to both human happiness and human misery than any other plant on the planet.  We have to admit that there are few  fabrics as comfortable as those woven from the lint in its bolls.  However, cotton has taken a heavy toll on the world in the human labor, water, and insecticides required for its growth.

Actually, the most commonly grown variety, Gossypium hirsutum or upland cotton – which probably originated in Mexico -- is an innocent-appearing plant from the mallow family with hibiscus-like blooms up to 3 1/2 inches across.  Like the flowers of hibiscus, those blooms last only one day, usually starting out white or pale yellow, sometimes with purple spots at the bases of the petals. 

The petals shade to purplish pink after the flower is pollinated, and the cotton in the plant eventually appears in the seed pods, where it actually was intended to help disperse those seeds. 
Though grown as an annual, cotton can be perennial in USDA zones 9 and up, and may grow to at least 15 feet in height if not cut back. The older leaves on a plant often have three to five lobes, while the younger ones are plainer. 

I received seeds of a purple-leafed variety in trade this spring, and think that foliage will make a striking backdrop for the flowers and cotton, providing I ever see any!  Cotton requires about 200 frost-free days to produce a crop, so I have my doubts.  I can always dig up a plant in the fall, though, and place it under my grow lights indoors

Unfortunately, this pretty plant contributed to the South’s clinging so grimly to the institution of slavery.  Cotton is a labor intensive crop and the plantation owners probably believed they couldn’t make a profit unless that labor was free.

Beginning in 1861, Lincoln imposed a blockade on southern ports to prevent exports.  The dearth of cotton which resulted devastated parts of the British Isles, where weaving was a major industry.  Cotton eventually would bankrupt Egypt too, as that country became a major supplier during the Civil War, but lost that business afterwards--when buyers reverted to the American market again.  In the end, of course, American growers made do with sharecropping, which isn’t quite slavery though it probably often felt like it! 

The cotton industry was hit hard again in the 1920s, by the incursion of the boll weevil.  Although that menace since has been beaten back, it remains illegal for gardeners to grow cotton in much of the south.  Yes, the plant has caused a lot of misery , but I imagine back then it had the same stranglehold on agriculture in the south that corn now has in the more northern states.

Cottonseeds are crushed to make oil and the cottonseed meal fed to livestock.  However, those seeds do contain a toxic substance, gossypol, which first must be removed to make them edible.  Cotton-picking machines didn’t really become efficient until about the 1950s and human workers reportedly still do a better job.

I read somewhere that the cotton industry uses one fourth of the world’s insecticides, and who knows what toll that has taken on innocent insects such as the bees?  However, most of us could not imagine having to do without our sheets, towels, denims, and etc. Although cotton may no longer be "king," it obviusly still rules the fabric industry.


The Gossypium hirsutum image is from Le Specie dei Cotoni by F. Parlatore, courtesy of