Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Cotton Plant

Teacher's Story

There are some plants which have made great chapters in the histories of nations, and cotton is one of them. The fibre of cotton was used for making clothing so long ago, that its discovery is shrouded in the myths of prehistoric times. But we believe it first came into use in India, for in this land we find certain laws concerning cotton which were codified 800 b.c.; and allusions to the fine, white raiment of the peoples of India are frequent in ancient history. Cotton was introduced into Egypt from India at an early date: it was in common use there 150 b.c. But not until our Civil War laid fallow the cotton fields of the United States, did Egypt realize the value of its crop; and although much money was lost there in agricultural speculation after our own product was again put on the market, yet cotton has remained since that time one of Egypt's most valuable exports.

When Columbus discovered America he found cotton growing in the West Indies, and the chief articles of clothing of the native Mexicans were made of cotton. Cloths of cotton were also found in ancient tombs of Peru, proving it was used there long before the white man set his foot upon those shores. When Magellan made his famous voyage around the world, beginning in 1519, he found the cotton fibre in use in Brazil.


The cotton in blossom.

It is a strange fact that the only region of the world between the parallels of 40° north and 40° south latitude, where cotton did not grow as a native or cultivated plant when America was discovered, was the region of our Gulf States, which now produces more cotton than any other. The first mention of cotton as a crop in the American colonies is in the report published in 1666. At the time of the Revolutionary War the cotton industry was thoroughly established. It is one of the significant facts of history that the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, which revolutionized the cotton industry and brought it to a much more profitable basis, wrought great evil to the United States, since it revived the profits of slave-holding. The institution of slavery was sinking out of sight by its own weight; Washington showed that it was the most expensive way to work land, and Jefferson failed to liberate his own slaves simply because he believed that liberty would come to all slaves inevitably, since slave-holding was such an expense to the plantation owners. But the cotton gin, which removed the seeds rapidly—theretofore done by slow and laborious hand process—suddenly made the raising of cotton so profitable that slaves were again employed in its production with great financial benefits. And thus it came about that the cotton plant innocently wielded a great influence in the political, as well as the industrial life of our country.

The cotton plant has a taproot, with branches which go deep into the soil. The stem is nearly cylindrical, the branches often spreading and sometimes irregular; the bark is dark and reddish; the wood is white. In Egypt, and probably in other arid countries, the stalks are gathered for fuel in winter.

The leaves are alternate, with long petioles. The upper leaves are deeply cut, some having five, some seven, some three, and some even nine lobes; strong veins extend from the petiole along the center of each lobe; the leaves near the ground may not be lobed at all. Where the petiole joins the stem, there is a pair of long, slender, pointed stipules, but they often fall off early. A strange characteristic of the cotton leaves is that they bear nectar-glands; these may be seen on the under side and along the main ribs of the leaf; they appear as little pits in the rib; some leaves may have none, while others may have from one to five. It has been thought that perhaps these glands might attract bees, wasps or ants, which would attack the caterpillars eating the leaves, but this has not been proved. However, many friendly insects get their nectar at these leaf-wells, and here is an opportunity for some young naturalist of the South to investigate this matter and discover what insects come to these glands at all times of day and what they do.

The flower bud is partially hidden beneath the clasping bracts of the involucre. These bracts are three or four in number, and they have the edges so deeply lobed that they seem branched. By pushing back the bracts we can find the calyx, which is a shallow cup with five shallow notches in its rim. The petals are rolled in the bud like a shut umbrella. The open flower has five broadly spreading petals; when the bud first opens in the morning, the petals are whitish or pale yellow with a purplish spot at the base, by noon they are pale pink, by the next day they are a deep purplish red and they fall at the end of the second day. There are nectar-glands also in the flower at the base of the calyx, and the insects are obliged to thrust their tongues between the bases of the petals to reach the nectar; only long-tongued bees, moths and butterflies are able to attain it.

There are many stamens which have their filaments united in a tube extending up into the middle of the flower and enlarging a little at the tip; below the enlarged base of this tube is the ovary which later develops into the cotton-boll; within the stamen-tube extends the long style, and from its tip are thrust out from three to five stigmas like little pennants from the top of a chimney; and sometimes they are more or less twisted together. The young boll is covered and protected by the fringed bracts, which cover the bud and remain attached to the ripened boll. The calyx, looking like a little saucer, also remains at the base of the boll. The boll soon assumes an elongated, oval shape, with long, pointed tip; it is green outside and covered with little pits, as large as pin points. There are, extending back from the pointed tip, three to five creases or sutures, which show where the boll will open. If we open a nearly ripened boll, we find that half way between each two sutures where the boll will open, there is a partition extending into the boll dividing it into compartments. These are really carpels, as in the core of an apple, and their leaf origin may be plainly seen in the venation. The seeds are fastened by their pointed ends along each side of the central edge of the partition, from which they break away very easily. The number of seeds varies, usually two or three along each side; the young seeds are wrapped in the young cotton, which is a stringy, soft white mass. The cotton fibres are attached to the covering of the seed around the blunt end, and usually the pointed end is bare. When the boll opens, the cotton becomes very fluffy and if not picked will blow away; for this cotton fibre is a device of the wild cotton for disseminating its seeds by sending them off on the wings of the wind. Heavy winds at the cotton-picking time, are a menace to the crop and often occasion serious loss.

The mechanism of the opening of the cotton-boll is very interesting; along the central edge of each partition and extending up like beaks into the point of the boll, is a stiff ridge, about the basal portion of which the seeds are attached; as the boll becomes dry, this ridged margin becomes as stiff as wire and warps outward; at the same time, the outside of the boll is shriveling. This action tears the boll apart along the sutures and exposes the seeds with their fluffy balloons to the action of the wind. The ripe, open, empty boll is worth looking at; the sections are wide apart and each white, delicate, parchment-like partition, or carpel, has its wire edge curved back gracefully. The outside of the boll is brown and shriveled, but inside it is still white and shows that it had a soft lining for its "seed babies."

The amount of the cotton crop per acre varies with the soil and climate; the amount that can be picked per day also depends upon the cotton as well as the picker. Children have been known to pick one hundred pounds per day, and a first-class picker from five hundred to six hundred pounds, or even eight hundred; one man has made a record of picking sixty pounds in an hour. Cotton is one of the most important crops grown in America, and there are listed more than one hundred and thirty varieties which have originated in our country.

References—The various bulletins of the United States Department of Agriculture and of the experiment stations of the Southern States. The most complete of these is Bulletin No. 33, Office of Experiment Stations, U. S. Dept. of Agriculture, published in 1896.

Lesson CLXX


Leading thought—Cotton has had a great influence upon our country politically as well as industrially. Its fibre was used by the ancients, and it is to-day one of the most important crops in the regions where it is grown.

Method—A cotton plant with blossoms and ripe bolls upon it may be brought into the school-room or studied in the field.


1. How many varieties of cotton do you know? Which kind is it you are studying?

2. What sort of root has the cotton plant? Does it go deep into the soil?

3. How high does the plant grow? Are the stems tough or brittle? What is the color of the bark? Of the wood? Do you know of a country where cotton stalks are used for fuel? Do the stem and branches grow erect or very spreading?

4. Are the leaves opposite or alternate? Are the petioles as long as the leaves? Are there any stipules where the petioles join the main stem? How many forms of leaves can you find on the same stem? How do the upper differ from the lower leaves? Describe or sketch one of the large upper leaves, paying especial attention to the veins and the shape of the lobes.

5. Look at the lower side of a leaf and find, if you can, a little pit on the midrib near its base. How many of these pits can you find on the veins of one leaf? What is the fluid in these pits? Taste it and see if it is sweet. Watch carefully a growing plant and describe what insects you find feeding on this nectar. Note if the wasps and ants, feeding on this nectar, attack the caterpillars of the cotton worm which destroy the leaf. Where are the nectar-glands of plants usually situated?

6. Study the flower bud; what covers it? How many of these bracts cover the flower bud? What is their shape and how do their edges look? Push back the bracts and find and describe the calyx. How are the petals folded in the bud?

7. Take the open flower; how many petals are there, and what is their shape? At what time of day do the flowers open? What color are the petals when the flowers first open? What is their color later in the day? What is their color the next day? When do the petals fall?

8. Describe the stamens; how are they joined? How are the anthers situated on the stamen-tube? Is the stamen-tube perfectly straight or does it bend at the tip?

9. Peel off carefully the stamen-tube and describe what you find within it. How many stigmas come out of the tip of the tube? Find the ovary below the stamen-tube. Which part of the flower grows into the cotton-boll?

10. Take a boll nearly ripe; what covers it? Push away the bracts; can you find the calyx still present? What is the shape of the boll? What is its color and texture? Can you see the creases where it will open? How many are there of these?

11. Open a nearly ripe boll very carefully. How many partitions are there in it? Where are they in relation to the openings? Gently push back the cotton from the seeds without loosening them, and describe how the seeds are connected with the partitions. Is the seed attached by its pointed or blunt end?

12. How many seeds in each chamber in the cotton boll? Where on the seed does the cotton grow? How does the cotton blanket wrap about the seed? If the cotton is not picked what happens to it? Of what use to the wild cotton plant are seeds covered with cotton?

13. What makes the cotton-boll open? Describe an open and empty boll outside and inside.

14. How much cotton is considered a good crop per acre in your vicinity? How much cotton can a good picker gather in a day?

15. Write English themes on the following topics: "The history of the cotton plant from ancient times until to-day," "How the cotton plant has affected American history."

"Queen-consort of the kingly maize,

The fair white cotton shares his throne,

And o'er the Southland's realm she claims

A just allegiance, all her own."

—Minnie Curtis Wait.

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