Land of Cotton, Part II

A visit to Virginia this past week gave me a second opportunity to examine the cotton growing in the fields surrounding my parent’s home, which was first highlighted (here) in July. My stepfather, born and raised on this land in the southeastern region of the state, has abandoned his love of farming to care full-time for my mother, and the acreage has been leased to a younger farmer who rotates crops from season to season and year to year.

Cotton field in late August.

Cotton field in late August.

The cotton now stands about 4-feet tall; when you look across the field it’s nearly impossible to distinguish the rows of individual plants. Though still in bloom, the crop is nearing the end of its growing period. At maturity, plants have 12 to 16 fruiting branches, each with several fruits.

Flower and foliage of a cotton plant.

Flower and foliage of a cotton plant.

Cotton belongs to the genus Gossypium of the Malvaceae (mallow) family, and when you look closely, its easy to see how much it resembles its plant cousins–okra, hollyhock, and hibiscus. Each flower opens a creamy white but begins to darken when it’s pollinated, deepening to yellow, pink, and then rose. Cotton can self-pollinate, or it can cross-pollinate with the help of bees. The flowers drop away within a few days leaving a small football-shaped pod, called a boll, which is filled with seeds.

One of the earliest cotton bolls, roughly 6-weeks into its growth period.

One of the earliest cotton bolls, roughly 6-weeks into its growth period.

The cotton plant is constantly adding squares (a flower bud enclosed by three bracts) to the plant and then aborting squares or young bolls to balance out the demand of the growing boll load. Boll retention gradually declines during the bloom period as the plant reaches its capacity for supplying bolls with the carbohydrates necessary to produce cotton fiber. The largest bolls on these plants, which formed in mid-July, are now roughly the size of a golf ball.

Immature cotton fibers within a green boll.

Immature cotton fibers within a green boll.

As a boll begins to grow, moist fibers push out from the newly formed seeds to fill the chambers of the pod. In time, as the boll ripens, it will begin to turn brown and crack open. Freed from the pod, the fibers expand in the warm autumn sunshine. I hope to show you the end result on my next visit, which is planned for October.

Turkeys on the go!

Turkeys on the go!

The soybeans which typically grow in these fields are sorely missed by the whitetail deer and the turkeys, which have no shame in eating their fill. Though the deer stayed out of sight, a flock of wild turkeys, comprising at least a dozen hens and two toms, risked exposure to forage in the tall grass around the farm.

16 thoughts on “Land of Cotton, Part II

  1. johnvic8

    Very interesting and informative. I remember driving with my Grandmother through that part of Virginia during WW2 and seeing cotton growing in the fields around Suffolk for the first time. It is a lasting memory.

    Reply
    1. Marian St.Clair Post author

      John–When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, cotton had taken a back seat to peanuts, but demand has grown and now many farmers in the area are planting it again. Until now, I’ve never looked at the plant closely.

      Reply
  2. Brenda Hendricks

    Thanks Marian. It was very informative. I have stopped in Sulfok to pick one or two cotton bolls at maturity. Cotton was grown on my great-grandparents land when I was a child. I had never seen it up close. I put the pieces in my trunk and when I got home I realized the part about it sticking me and hurting a lot. I changed my mind about wanting it and threw it away. How oh how did the slaves pick cotton? Eli Whitney was a genius. Thanks for the article.

    Reply
  3. Martha Robinson

    I picked cotton one day on a cousin’s farm as a young girl. I picked till my nose bleed (very hot and very hard back in the day when they picked by hand) made me go to the house. What a hard life it was back then! Yeah for modern technology.

    Reply
  4. pbmgarden

    This is really interesting Marian. I grew up with cotton fields all around but no direct involvement, so never realized how this process works. Looking forward to your next installment.

    Reply
  5. Pauline

    Fascinating post, it is so interesting to see how the cotton starts off. Where we used to live in the NW of England, in so many towns around the area were the cotton mills which used to import the cotton into Liverpool, then to the mills to be made into cloth. I will look forward to the next instalment.

    Reply
  6. Marian St.Clair Post author

    Pauline–It’s been fun to learn about a plant I’ve been around all my life, but knew little about. The production of textiles was once the largest industry in this region, now the majority of the work has been exported to countries with cheaper labor costs.

    Reply

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