Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Nature Bulletin No. 464   September 29, 1956
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
Daniel Ryan, President
Roberts Mann, Conservation Editor
David H. Thompson, Senior Naturalist

Illinois is considered a northern state. Travelers are astonished when they see fields of cotton in its southernmost counties. They do not realize that Cairo, where the Ohio river empties into the Mississippi, is on the same parallel of latitude as the north boundaries of three cotton- growing states: Oklahoma, New Mexico and Arizona.

Cotton, a tropical plant which has been adapted to temperate regions where there is a growing season of six months or more, is the world's most important source of fiber. Man depends mainly upon cotton for his clothing and other textiles. Countless uses have been found for it and its by-products. It enters into the daily life of more of the world's peoples than any other product except salt.

When Columbus discovered America he found cotton growing and being used in the West Indies but it was different from the kinds then grown in Spain, in Egypt, and in India where cotton has been cultivated and woven into cloth since 3000 B. C. The Aztecs in Mexico, the Mayans in Central America, the cliff dwellers in Arizona, and the prehistoric Incans in Peru, all made fabrics from the kinds of cotton native in the two Americas. More than 30 species are now recognized and classified according to the "staple" -- the average length of the fibers produced -- and the climatic and soil conditions required for their best growth.

As a farm crop in the United States -- although it is not as important as livestock nor as important as corn, which is largely fed to livestock -- cotton has long been the most important cash crop except during a few years when wheat outranked it. We grow more cotton than any other nation and use most of it as raw material for many industries.

In the plant world, cotton is the most prominent member of the Mallow Family which includes okra, marsh mallow, rose mallow, the hibiscus, and an old friend, the hollyhock. A full-grown cotton plant is a sturdy bush with a central stem and many branches. It may be from 2 to 8 feet tall, depending upon the species. Its wide heart-shaped leaves have from 3 to 7 lobes and its blossoms are similar to but smaller than those of the hollyhock.

Afield of cotton in bloom is beautiful. The tall "long staple" Sea Island Cotton has yellow blossoms but the Upland Cottons, which comprise ninety-some percent of the crop in this country, have blossoms that are snowy white when they open, pink the second day, and then become purplish red. When the petals fall off, each flower leaves a small green square and, in the center of that square, there is a little green capsule. That is a "cotton boll" and it grows until it is as big as an egg. Then it ripens and the husk, turned brown, opens like a milkweed pod and a fluffy white ball of fibers bursts out.

Each ball contains several dozen egg-shaped seeds and each seed is coated with thousands of long white hairs which are flat, twisted, and superior to all other natural fibers for spinning into threads.

Beginning with Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin for separating the seeds from the fibers, and culminating with the recent perfection of a machine to "pick" and gather cotton from the fields, there has been a complete revolution in the cultivation and utilization of this remarkable plant.

Cotton lint, that household nuisance, now makes casings for your weiners, Hot dog!

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