What is cotton?

Cotton Flower

A Cotton Flower © Plexus/CVT

Cotton is a natural fibre that comes from the seedpod of the cotton plant. People have valued cotton for thousands of years as it can be woven and spun into fabric and so it has been cultivated and traded around the world. Cotton is still the world’s most important non-food agricultural commodity.

The cotton plant

Wild cotton grows in dry regions of the tropics and sub-tropics of Africa, Asia, Australia and America. The cotton plant produces fluffy fibres to protect its seeds and help them disperse in the wind.

Cotton is a member of the Mallow family, which includes species such as marsh mallow, hollyhock, hibiscus and lavatera whose bright pink flowers light up many a garden.

There are thirty recognised species of cotton. However, only four are cultivated on any scale commercially. These four can be divided into two groups: the old world cottons, Gossypium arboreum and Gossypium herbaceum, and the new world cottons, Gossypium hirsutum (upland cotton) and Gossypium barbadense (Sea Island or Egyptian cotton).

Cotton Crop

Cotton Crop © PCCA

Growing cotton as a crop

There is archaeological evidence from Peru, India and Mexico that cotton has been used for thousands of years. People in Asia and South America realized that the soft white fibres of the wild cotton plant could be useful and started to grow cotton as a crop around 3000BC.

Its tropical origins mean that cotton requires warmth and sunshine for six to seven months during its growth, as well as regular moisture.

The cotton plant is naturally perennial, which means that it lasts for more than one growing season. However, as a crop it is grown annually, so it grows from seed to be harvested in the same year. This ensures that the plants do not grow too large, are a uniform size and produce their valuable fibre at the same time.

Next: find out about cotton pests