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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.