Whenever I am showing a new volunteer through the seed bank I can’t help myself from excitedly grabbing the container which houses the cotton seeds and saying something obvious like “Look! We have cotton seeds!” just as a small child might point out a brightly colored candy. This could be because I’m a Northerner and seeing an actual cotton seed soon to be plant is a novelty. However, in researching the origins of these varieties and considering the history of cotton, it’s more likely that these seeds really are incredibly worthy of everyone’s excitement and unabashed enthusiasm.
If you’ve heard negative press about cotton, you might be wondering why NS/S would be promoting a crop that is heavily subsidized by the government, consumes gargantuan amounts of water, and largely relies on genetically modified seeds to support the industry. Well, it’s the same reason we have corn in our collection: These seeds are specially adapted to the Southwest region and are an important part of the cultural heritage here. Cotton is one of Arizona’s five ‘C’s along with cattle, citrus, climate, and copper. Cotton has been a major crop grown in the area for the last 1,500 years. The varieties we steward do not have long enough fibers to be amenable to machine processing, they are a different species. Gossypium hirsutum varieties are referred to as short staple cottons because the fiber strands are short in comparison to most commercially available cottons which have extra‐long staple or fibers. However, they are inherently more pest resistant than commercially grown cotton and can be handspun if you have the know how and the time.
NS/S has two primary varieties of cotton in distribution: Davis Green (member only variety) and Sacaton Aboriginal. Each of these has a unique story.
Short Staple Cotton, pictured above, has been dry-farmed by the Hopi people for around a thousand years. It is used not only as a fiber crop but the seeds roasted and eaten. Many ceremonial garments are woven out of cotton. The arrival of the Spanish brought wool, which became a popular fiber for spinning, leading to a decline in cotton cultivation among the Hopi. The USDA obtained seeds of this variety from the Hopi Reservation in the early 1930’s, and then gave a sample to NS/S in 1981. In 2003 much of this seed grown out by NS/S was returned to Hopi seed stewards as part of a large seed rematriation effort.
Davis Green Cotton
Davis Green (an intentional cross between a Louisiana green and Pima cotton) has a beautiful green hue that varies in color slightly depending on where it’s grown. In warmer climates, such as Tucson, it tends to be a darker green than in cooler climates and becomes more pronounced with repeated washings. Phreadde Davis, of Albuquerque, NM, donated some of her seed to NS/S in 2006 after having selected for longer, silkier fibers and succeeding! This variety is named after her.
Sacaton Aboriginal a.k.a. “Pima Cotton” is a landrace variety that was grown until the early 1900’s by the Akimel O’odham or Pima Indians who live around Sacaton, Arizona. The Pimas were renowned for their cotton of superior quality. It is related to Hopi Cotton and was at one point thought to be a lost variety. Cotton cultivation among the Pima was nearly nonexistent by the early 1900s as water in the Gila River was diverted and available irrigation waters within the reservation lands declined. Many farmers transitioned to the growing of commercial crops like wheat or away from farming all together. Increased importation of manufactured cotton cloth replaced garments produced from the locally grown cotton and weaving traditions also began to disappear. In the 1980s many Pima elders recalled seeing their native cotton growing in fields on the reservation as children, but contemporary seed samples could not be located. In 1984 Gary Nabhan (one of the NS/S cofounders) found six seeds marked “Sacaton Aboriginal” with a code number from the University of Arizona cotton breeders (Rea, 308). He kept two seeds and shared the other four. Those seeds had not been grown since 1964 but fortunately did grow. From those seeds, NS/S has established sufficient numbers to make this variety available and ensure that they will continue to live on and represent centuries of cotton farming and weaving traditions among the Pima.
The Sacaton Aboriginal variety of cotton should not be confused with the commercially grown variety of cotton referred to as Pima Cotton. Within the industry Pima Cotton refers to strains of long fiber cotton that are the result of seed improvement efforts from strains or a totally different species of cotton (Gossypium barbadense) originally from Egypt. Much of the plant breeding work occurred at the US Field Station in Sacaton, Arizona in Pima county. Hence the name Pima Cotton. Nowadays Pima cotton is grown all over the world and products that carry the label of Pima Cotton are not necessarily produced in Arizona.
Cotton needs a relatively long season to fully mature to harvest the fibers. Therefore plant in the spring in most areas or start in a greenhouse and transplant. Monsoon season planting is also possible in the low desert. Cotton is frost sensitive and if the winter is mild it is possible to overwinter the plants. Plants can grow into large bushes so leave at least 1 to 2 feet between plants. The landrace varieties can also grow quite tall, particularly with the Sacaton Aboriginal which can reach up to 7 feet. The seed coats can be quite hard so soaking seeds for 24 hours prior to planting helps with the germination process. Keep seeds moist until germinated.
Cotton is a fun crop to grow. It has beautiful flowers and the leaves change colors as the temperatures cool in the fall. The flowers are large and showy and attract many pollinators. If you think the flowers resemble hibiscus and okra it is because they are all part of the same plant family – Malvacea. Harvest the cotton once the bolls have dried and split open. The cotton fibers can easily be separated from the hard seeds by hand.
So whether you are growing for use or for the beautiful flowers, cotton is a great addition to any summer southwest garden.