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Growing Ornamental Cotton
Growing Ornamental Cotton: In someareas it's fun. In others it's against the law!  

Q. Mike - How difficult wouldit be to grow cotton in Delaware? Just for looks. Also where can I getseeds? Thanks,
            ---Paul;Bethany Beach, DE

Well, you'd think this would be pretty straightforward, now wouldn'tyou?  Check to see if Paul's Delawarean climate has enough growingdays for the plants to produce that white fuzz, find him a seed sourceand go home early...

So I look up cotton's scientific name, Gossypium ("Go-sippy-um")—soundslike you're telling a toddler to take a drink—and the photos reveal whypeople would want to grow it even if they don't have a long enoughseason to get a little cotton; the blooms are beautiful; a lot likehibiscus.

Back when I was editor of ORGANIC GARDENING magazine, we ran a letterfrom backyard cotton grower Marion Friedlander of River Bend, NC notingthe beauty of those flowers. She added that the seedpods that precedeactual cotton are also very attractive, that the pods and cotton headslook great in dried flower arrangements and that Hastings Seeds inAtlanta, Georgia carried the seeds.

A call to Hastings, however, revealed that a lot can change in 14years. What was then a seed company is now the Hastings Nature andGarden Center. They hadn't put seeds up in packets for years, but saidthey'd try and find someone to help me.

Which was good, because I was striking out. The only small packetsource I had been able to find so far was a Gurney's listing on theInternet that looked suspiciously old. I called Marilyn Black, whoproduces the Gurney's catalog, and she explained that it WAS an oldreference; they hadn't carried cotton for quite some time. She wasintrigued, however, and worked in the seed trade for years, so she saidshe'd hunt around for me.

I finally find a current source—"seedrack dot com" where the WhatcomSeed Company is offering ten seeds of "Upland cotton" (Gossypiumhirsutum) for $3.39 (search under 'G' for "Gossypium"). Then Marilyncalls to say that Suttons Seeds in the U.K. sells 12 seeds of"ornamental cotton" (Gossypium herbaceum) for £3.99 under their"World in Your Garden" line; it's a different variety—the flowers areyellow, while the blooms of Upland cotton start out white and turn abeautiful rosy pink. Now we're cooking!

Then Pat Lemmerman, the seed buyer for Hastings calls to explain whythe homegrown cottonseed well is so dry. "It's illegal for homeownersto grow cotton in Georgia—and any other state where cotton is a cashcrop—because of the boll weevil eradication program", she explains,adding that they had to turn down a request from the governor!

…Which led me to Dr. Steve Brown, Cotton Specialist for the Universityof Georgia Extension Service, who explained that Upland cotton—the typegrown by American farmers—is indeed a wonderful plant. Although eachflower is short-lived, the plants produce them for four to seven weeksbefore they begin to develop those all-important seedpods. "Thehibiscus-like flowers appear 65 to 75 days after seeding", heexplained, "so someone in Delaware would have plenty of time to get anice show—and if their summer stays warm through September, they mighteven get some cotton", he added, explaining that the pods mature about50 days after the flowers are done—again, provided the weather stayswarm.

"Cotton is a very warm climate crop", he stressed; "it does not liketemperatures below 60°, so the earliest I'd put it in the ground upthere would be around June 1st. You could start it indoors a few weeksahead of time and transplant it out, but use big containers and get itout fast; the roots grow very quickly and the plants won't do well ifthey get pot bound.  Cotton is self-pollinating, so you don't needa lot of plants," he added, "and if it does mature, you can collect theseed that'll be mixed in with the cotton lint for subsequent seasons.It needs very good drainage, and likes a lot of food and water afterflowering.  It's a tropical perennial, and Southern farmersactually have to kill the plants before harvest," he continued, "but upNorth it'll die naturally over winter."

And he doesn't see a problem growing it in Delaware. "That's outsidethe boll weevil eradication zone, which runs from Virginia down toTexas, and out to Tennessee and Missouri, so I don't imagine anyonewill mind. Just don't take any plant material into a cotton growingstate—especially Texas or Arkansas, where the weevil is still active."

In those areas, "some states will issue you a permit if you put uppheromone traps and destroy the crop if you capture a weevil, but somewon't. Although the likelihood of a garden crop becoming a seriousthreat is small, there is the fear that a homeowner could accidentallycreate a little safe haven breeding ground that might lead to anoutbreak. Commercial cotton growers MUST buy into the program; they pay$4 per acre of cotton, and folks who work for the eradication serviceset up and monitor the traps."

So if you live in a non-cotton state, you're free to enjoy the flowersand pods. And if you have at least 120 growing days and getwarm-weather lucky, maybe even see those pods split open and reveal thecotton lint—and next year's seeds—inside. If you're down South, contactyour local Extension office and see if there's the possibility of apermit.

For more info, visit these web sites:

Ultimate cotton growing info:

Boll Weevil Eradication program info; lists all states involved:

Our good buddy Dr. Jim Duke's fascinating treatise on cotton as amedicinal plant:

You Bet Your Garden   Question of the Week ©2006 MikeMcGrath

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