Every once in awhile I am asked a question here at the UConn Home and Garden Education Center that I think everyone will benefit from the answer. Where does cotton come from is one of those questions. All the clothing ads tell us cotton is a natural product. Yes it is; it comes from a plant grown in warmer regions of the United States and other countries. The states of Georgia and North Carolina are the largest cotton growers in the U.S. Their climate is perfect for the plant that is treated like an annual. Cotton plants will grow in temperatures above 60 degrees F and below 100 degrees F, but optimal air temps are 90 to 95 F. Plants need plenty of moisture when young to produce deep and extensive root systems. Once established, they are considered drought tolerant.
The plants grow from two to five feet tall in a tangle of gnarly stems and leaves. In a few weeks, the plant start to produce floral buds called cotton squares. These buds open into the a large white to yellow flower. After the flower is pollinated by insects, it turns pink. The fertilized flower then begins producing its fruit or seed pod called a boll. Within the boll are the seeds and the fibrous cotton. After 55 days, the bolls are ripe and ready for picking. Cotton plants are indeterminate, continuing to set flowers and seeds up the plant as it continues to grow taller and wider.
Separating the cotton from the seed was tedious work until 1793 when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine that used a wire screen and small wire hooks to pull the cotton through as it was brushed continuously to prevent jams. The cleaned cotton is then carded and spun into fine threads to be used to weave into fabrics made into clothes and many other useful products.
A recent visit to the UConn Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Greenhouses for a break from the winter cold of Connecticut is where I found the cotton plant in bud, bloom and boll.