Friday, January 29, 2016

Wild Cotton - Gossypium hirsutum

Wild cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is a state-listed endangered species found naturally in south Florida, though it has been reported from Pinellas County on the central west coast and Gilchrist County in north Florida. It also ranges through much of the Caribbean and parts of Mexico.. It is a member of the Hibiscus/Mallow family (Malvaceae) and is the wild source of cultivated cotton that is still a staple of the fabric industry. Its current status in Florida is now largely a result of past attempts to eradicate it as a host to the boll weevil that once severely threatened the industry. It is still illegal to sell this plant, though it is propagated and traded by native plant enthusiasts.
Wild cotton is a woody shrub that can reach 12 feet tall. As the Latin species name implies, the stems are hairy. The evergreen leaves are 3-lobed and 2-6 inches long.. Overall, the plants are thin with short branches.
Flowering can occur throughout the year. Like all hibiscus, the solitary blooms remain open for only one day before folding up. the five petals are white and often have a dark maroon spot at the base of the flower. The white petals also often turn pinkish as the day progresses. The flowers pictured here are recently opened and are from plants in our Pinellas County landscape. Pollinated flowers quickly form a broad seed capsule that eventually turns brown and splits along the carpel seams. When this happens, the seeds are surrounded by cotton fibers. Pollination is mostly performed by bees in my landscape and it is a larval food of the gray hairstreak.
My wife, Alexa, planted our wild cotton more than 10 years ago and it has persisted despite complete neglect. Though none of our plants seem to live more than a few years, it reseeds. Plants that germinate in partly shady, well-drained locations persist longer than those in other conditions.
Wild cotton makes an interesting addition to the landscape, though it looks best when mixed with other species. It is unfortunate that we cannot share this plant as part of the plants we offer at Hawthorn Hill because of its current legal status. Perhaps it will someday be legal to propagate and sell this plant, especially in the southern part of Florida where cotton is not grown as a fiber crop.

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