No plant is more cloaked in Southern history and culture than cotton. Among the world's oldest cultivated plants, it was used for cloth making in Mexico as early as 5,000 B.C. Upland cotton, the type grown in the South, is native to Central America and the West Indies. First grown in the American colonies in 1607, it flourished in the South's warm, humid climateand with Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the industry got a dramatic boost, as the new machine removed seeds from the fibers 50 times faster than a person could by hand.
Cotton is a shrubby plant 46 feet tall, about half as wide. It belongs to the mallow family, a fact clearly evidenced by its foliage and flowers. Coarse, dark green leaves are usually palmately lobed; attractive summer flowers to 3 inches long are white or yellowish, fading to pinkish purple. Blossoms are followed by prominent, sharp-edged seed capsules or bolls filled with seeds and cotton. White cotton is the cotton of commerce, but there are also other colors, including brown, green, yellow, and pink. Heirloom types, such as those noted below, are still grown and spun.
Cotton makes an interesting and historically relevant addition to the gardenand the fluffy bolls never fail to fascinate children. Include a few plants in your vegetable beds; they also make fine additions to a cottage planting. Plants thrive in hottest sites with regular water and well-drained soil. Cut branches of mature cotton are excellent for use in flower arrangements. Two favorite heirloom kinds are 'Erlene's Green', a green cotton from East Texas that turns yellowish green after the fibers are spun and washed, and 'Nankeen', a short-fiber brown cotton that grows well in poor, dry soil and has a long bloom cycle that lasts into fall. 'Sea Island Brown' has longer fibers than other brown cottons, and 'Red Foliate White' is an ornamental form with red stems and leaves, rose-pink flowers, and white cotton bolls.