Courtesy of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
As a weaver, I have plenty of reasons to attempt growing cotton in my small, urban backyard garden. So I teamed up with Caitlin Wilson, a fiber-spinning friend of mine, and hatched a plot to grow naturally colored green cotton. Because we’re fiber fans, growing our own colored cotton was an appealing challenge.
Such experiments never go smoothly at first, and ours was no exception. But regardless of the outcome, gardening trials always leave us with plenty of new information. And through our adventures, we learned a lot.
Cotton has been cultivated as a crop for centuries. Around 5000 B.C., civilizations in North, Central, and South America were growing cotton to make yarn and cloth. By 3000 B.C., several cotton species were growing in present-day Pakistan and India, as well as along the Nile River in Egypt. And by 800 A.D., cultivated cotton was grown in southern Europe. When Europeans moving to North America found cultivated native cottons, they adopted those species into their colonies.
Ancient civilizations used naturally colored cottons to weave wall hangings. This hanging dates back to 1300 to 1470, and is thought to have hung in a palace in Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian-era city of South America. Photo by Met Museum
While we tend to think of cotton primarily as white, most cotton species come in several colors: green, brown, tan, rust, and a light-pink rust. Some cultures, such as the Paracas and Nazca civilizations in Peru, valued the color variations and used them to create intricately patterned cloth. Ancient Egyptians, on the other hand, appreciated white cotton and natural-colored linen, using both to create light garments suitable for desert living.
Though there are many species of cotton, four species are commercially cultivated for their fibers:
- Gossypium hirsutum: an upland cotton native to North and Central America and the Caribbean islands.
- G. barbadense: an extra-long-staple cotton native to South America.
- G. arboreum: a medium-staple tree cotton native to Pakistan and India.
- G. herbaceum: a short-staple cotton, also known as Levant or Egyptian cotton, native to the Arabian Peninsula and southern Africa.
Currently, G. hirsutum is the most commonly cultivated species, accounting for 90 percent of worldwide cotton production. All the colored cottons produced in the U.S. are variations of G. hirsutum.
Cotton species not used for fiber production include G. darwinii, also known as “Darwin’s cotton,” found only on the Galapagos Islands. It only produces very small bolls of fiber. There’s also G. australe, a relative of cotton, which doesn’t produce any bolls, but does boast a beautiful pink hibiscus-like flower.
Naturally Colored Cottons
The color in cotton comes from various pigments that lodge in different parts of the cotton fiber. For instance, green cottons derive their color from caffeic acid deposited in the waxy suberin layer found in the cellulose on the outside of the fiber. Brown and tan cottons have tannin vacuoles that live in the lumen, or center, of the fiber cells.
Colored cottons tend to have short fibers, even those from long-staple cultivars. The industrial spinning machines developed in the 18th century were hard on fibers, and were unable to spin the shorter cottons. However, this setback didn’t stop colored cottons from being grown commercially well into the 20th century; these harvests were mostly used during World War II in the Soviet Union to make war uniforms when there was a shortage of dyes. After the war, however, colored cottons once again fell out of favor.
Photo courtesy Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
In the 1980s, several U.S. innovators began to experiment with developing longer-staple colored cottons for commercial production. Sally Fox introduced long-staple colors in 1982 through her company, Foxfibre. Today, Fox still works with organic colored cottons in California. Cotton breeders Raymond Bird and C. Harvey Campbell Jr. were also working to improve fiber quality in red, green, and brown cottons through their company, BC Cotton Inc., in 1990. Both Fox and Bird faced pushback from white-cotton producers, and each fought lawsuits attempting to prevent them from growing their cottons.
Other colored-cotton growers chose to share their cotton with seed companies around the country. ‘Arkansas Green Lint’ seeds and Erlene Melancon’s green cottonseeds, now known as ‘Erlene’s Green,’ are sold through Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. After doing our homework, we ordered ‘Arkansas Green Lint’ seeds, and started in on our adventure.
The Weight of History
Cotton fabrics became widespread in Europe in the 1600s through several companies, especially the British East India Company. Eventually, Europeans became interested in producing their own cheaper cotton fabrics, an interest that coincided with global colonization and a surge of technological and industrial innovations. Europeans bought raw cotton bales from India, Egypt, and the Caribbean, before turning to the United States and its bountiful cotton cultivation.
By 1810, there were more than 1 million enslaved people in the southern United States, most of whom were forced to harvest cotton. Photo by Getty Images/wynnter
While cotton production drove the economy of the southern U.S., it also fueled one of the most egregious losses of human dignity and human life in American history. The first U.S. census in 1790 revealed that there were just under 700,000 enslaved people in the country. This number quickly rose; the skyrocketing demand for cotton, combined with the forced migrations of Indigenous peoples, opened more land for farmers, who eagerly planted the cash crop. By 1810, there were more than 1 million enslaved people in the southern U.S., most of whom were forced to harvest and process cotton. Despite motions to abolish slavery, the U.S. enslaved population continued to grow. By the eve of the Civil War, almost 4 million enslaved people were living in the U.S., over half of whom lived in the “Cotton Belt.”
If you decide to try your hand at growing cotton, check your state’s regulations first. Cotton is self-pollinating; for this reason, some states have restrictions on recreational cotton planting to prevent the risk of cross-pollination in large industrial fields. Some states also have restrictions to protect industrial crops from the destructive boll weevil. In 2006, Arkansas eradicated the boll weevil after years of producer collaboration. They’re not eager to have the bug back, so noncommercial cotton planting isn’t allowed. In Kansas, colored cotton is uninsurable, even if planted commercially, but there are no restrictions on noncommercial planting.
Prepping the Experiment
Cotton likes warmth, but in my garden in Kansas, the outside temperatures aren’t warm enough for cotton until May. Rather than waiting, we set up heat pads, grow lights, and seed trays indoors in February, hoping the plants would be tall enough and the roots stable enough to transplant in late May. In the meantime, we dug and prepped a new 6-by-6-foot garden plot in my backyard. We surrounded the bed with old windows to protect the seedlings from my chickens in summer, and laid a small wooden path to help us move between the plants without damaging them. Lastly, we sunk 2-liter bottles pierced with holes into the ground as our watering system; we hoped to deliver water to the roots of the plants and encourage deeper growth. During our outdoor prep, we planted 25 seeds indoors and held our breath.
Carla and Caitlin used recycled windows to create a small enclosure for their cotton plants. Photo by Carla Tilghman
For the first couple of months, everything went smoothly. However, the plants stalled at 6 to 8 inches high, stubbornly refusing to grow any taller. Some gave up altogether. And some truly unlucky seedlings were crushed under my cat.
First Signs of Success
Come spring, we planted our remaining seedlings in their new bed outside. We also planted a small cotton plant a friend had gifted me at the beginning of the farmers market season. Though we knew that cotton cross-pollinates effectively, we were curious to see the results for ourselves. Cotton fiber plants produce a white flower that opens in the morning. Self-pollination occurs within four hours, and by evening, the flower changes to a pink or fuchsia color.
Photo by Carla Tilghman
Our first bolls began to show up in July, and we began to harvest in August. Through trial and error, we learned to let the boll fully open and the fibers dry out before harvesting. When the boll first starts to crack open, the fibers are wet and tightly packed in their lobes. Once the fibers have dried, the boll is easy to remove from the plant.
On days when we knew rain was coming, we rigged a cover for our patch so that the maturing bolls wouldn’t get soaked, which is damaging to the young fibers. We then spent hours pulling green fluff off dark-green seeds. Each lobe produced 5 to 6 seeds, giving us a harvest of 20 to 36 seeds per boll.
By the beginning of October, temperatures were dropping too low for cotton plants, so we pulled off all the bolls we could see and brought them indoors. We placed them in a shallow cardboard box on a heating pad under a grow lamp to see if they’d continue to mature. Despite further interferences from my cats, most of the bolls fully matured. During this process, we also discovered that the plant I’d been gifted was white cotton. The area of the bed surrounding the white cotton plant experienced cross-pollination, as some of the green cotton was paler than the rest of the crop. The white bolls were also the last to mature.
Photo by Carla Tilghman
A Second Attempt
Since we’d lost so many seedlings in the early stages of our experiment, we decided to try again the following year. For our second attempt, we started both green and brown cottonseeds, planting them in pots on heat mats and under heat lamps. This time, we started the seeds in January and used deeper pots, hoping the plants would establish some deeper roots before we transplanted them in spring.
Photo by Carla Tilghman
The plants disagreed with some of our changes. The seeds germinated within a week, but only grew to 3 to 4 inches. To combat this stunted growth, we checked the soil moisture, moved them into direct sunlight, and kindly begged them to grow. Despite our efforts, they developed nitrogen deficiencies. To fix this, we fed the plants a fish emulsion fertilizer with organic-based hydrolysate, 3-3-0.3. Some of the plants improved slightly, but the majority developed a fungal infection that got the best of them. By early May, we had 10 green cotton plants and 12 brown cotton plants that were barely hanging on.
At this point, the cats intervened once again. They took naps in the warm dirt. The brown cotton seedlings learned to lean away from the invading pile of fur and turned their little leaves to the sun. Then, one of the cats dumped the entire planter on the floor, spreading the dirt around under the table. While I caught this act of vandalism quickly, scooped everything back into the planter, and urged the seedlings to “hang in there,” the trauma was too much for half of them.
Photo by Carla Tilghman
By the end of May, we planted the few survivors into our cotton plot. Originally, we’d planned to plant the green cotton in my yard and the brown in Caitlin’s so the two wouldn’t cross-pollinate. But since so few plants were left, we stuffed them all in the same bed and started another cross-pollination experiment. We’ll keep the seeds from these plants separate from the others, perhaps for more experiments in cross-breeding.
Unfortunately, we don’t yet know the final outcome of our second experiment. Our seedlings suffered a fair amount of trauma early on, but we’re hopeful they’ll be able to pull through. We’re also excited to see how this crop will differ from our first cross-pollination attempt. Regardless, I’m sure we’ll end up with some interesting cotton to use in our personal fiber projects.
Photo by Carla Tilghman
After our trials, we’re both a bit grateful that we don’t depend on growing cotton to make ends meet. But our setbacks haven’t dissuaded us from learning more and trying again. Next year, we’ll again attempt to bring seedlings to full fluff production … with a lot more cat-proofing.
Carla Tilghman learned to spin and weave at 12 years old. While she’s had many careers, she always comes back to working with fibers. Carla currently works as an editor at Ogden Publications. She spends her spare time spinning, gardening, and chasing after her assorted cats, chickens, and children.