Common Names: cotton, upland cotton
Family: Malvaceae (mallow Family)
Perennial Annual Easy to grow - great for beginners! Edible Plant
Has Ornamental (non-edible) Fruit Flowers
There are actually 32 species of cotton, genus Gossypium, and five
species grown commercially, but upland cotton (G. hirsutum),
including its hybrids and genetically modified cultivars, is by far
the most commonly grown, and the main source of the fiber we use
every day. The cotton plant is a perennial shrub, normally grown as
an annual. It can get up to 6 ft (2 m) in height, and develops a
semi-woody stem. Upland cotton is a coarse plant with broad,
3-5-lobed leaves, 2-4 in (4-10 cm) long. The flowers are quite
attractive, about 3 in (7.5 cm) long, starting out yellow and ageing
to purplish pink. The fruit is a capsule about 1.5 in (3.75 cm) long
containing numerous seeds surrounded by a whitish tomenta (lint and
fuzz). The capsule opens at maturity exposing the seeds with their
tomenta which is the cotton boll.
The original wild upland cotton, Gossypium hirsutum, is native to
Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean Basin, including South
Florida. Other species used locally for fiber are native to Africa,
Asia and tropical South America. Cotton is grown commercially
wherever summers are long and hot, and autumns are relatively dry.
Important cotton growing regions include the southern United States,
Egypt, China, India, Brazil, Peru, and Asia Minor.
Light: Cotton is grown commercially in full sun, but you can grow
the plant as an ornamental in partial shade.
Moisture: Cotton plants need adequate moisture during growth, but
the crop needs a dry period as the bolls mature so that they do not
decay before harvest. In areas that receive less than about 30 in
(75 cm) of rain during the growing season, the crop is irrigated.
Hardiness: USDA Zones 8 - 11. In frost free climates upland cotton
is a perennial. It is almost always grown as an annual, however.
Propagation: Cotton is grown from seed planted after all danger of
frost has past. For ornamental use in areas with shorter summers,
start cotton seeds indoors a few weeks before setting seedlings out
The summertime yellow flowers of upland cotton are showy, looking a
lot like its close relative, Hibiscus. The white fluffy cotton bolls
are uniquely attractive, persisting throughout the winter even after
the leaves have fallen. There is no reason this plant shouldn't be
provided a spot in the ornamental garden. Kids and grownups too will
be excited when they see firsthand where cotton comes from! Swipe a
few seeds the next time you pass a cotton field in September and
start a couple plants for your border or perennial bed next spring.
If you don't like the idea of swiping, you can rescue a lost cotton
boll from along the highway between the cotton field and the cotton
gin. Several seed companies sell cotton seeds for the home gardener.
A small grouping of cotton plants in the flower border will provide
pretty yellow flowers in summer, and look especially attractive in
winter when the cotton bolls rest like snow on the brown, leafless
Most commercial cotton grown today has been genetically modified
with the insertion of bacterial genes that repel insect pests so as
to reduce the need for chemical pesticides. The cotton plants are
grown in large fields over a long frost-free growing season. Even
the Bt genetically altered cotton plants usually need frequent
applications of pesticides, often from small airplanes. As autumn
approaches, the plants are sprayed with a chemical that causes the
leaves to drop. Then machines harvest the cotton bolls. The bolls
are then taken to a facility (cotton gin) that combs them to remove
the seeds and other debris. Next the cotton is spun into a thin
thread. The textiles made from cotton thread are the most widely
used cloths in the world. There is evidence of the use of cotton
thread from 6000 years ago in India and northern Africa.
Like some other members of the mallow family (including okra,
Abelmoschus esculentus), cotton leaves have nectaries, which makes
them attractive to marauding deer. (The purpose of the nectaries is
probably to attract aphids and the ants that herd them - the ants
then ward off insects that might eat the leaves.) The immature
cotton fruit looks a lot like an immature okra pod, and the whole
cotton plant resembles a hibiscus.