Cotton is an vital agricultural crop grown in warm areas worldwide. Around 40 species of cotton exist, but almost all of it is a form of upland or wild cotton (Gossypium hirsutum). It is primarily grown as a field crop, but occasionally it is used ornamentally for its somewhat showy flowers.
Upland cotton is native to South and Central America north to tropical Florida, several Caribbean islands and several Pacific Islands including Samoa. Other, lesser-known species of cotton are native to Africa and Southeast Asia. It has been naturalized in most warm tropical to semi-tropical areas around the world.
Upland cotton is a perennial tree or shrub that grows 6 to 16 feet tall and with a similar sized spread. In cultivation, however, it is treated as an annual and rarely allowed to reach more than 5 feet tall. It has light green three- to five-lobed leaves that are 5 inches long and 4 to 5 inches wide. The flowers have five petals and are usually white or yellow. The seed is where the cotton fiber comes from. The outer cells on the seed pod grow small, fibrous white hairs called lint.
Cotton likes warm, tropical weather. In very, hot dry areas it may go dormant until the rainy season or die off completely. It is not too picky about soil conditions as long as it is free draining and is not in standing water. It does best in full sun, but can tolerate some light shade.
Cotton is a very important agricultural crop. It is the most widely grown non-food crop in the world. In addition to the fibers, cotton seeds are also used in the manufacture of many items from foods to plastics. The seeds are very high in oil, which is harvested after the cotton fibers are removed. Many ordinary food products on store shelves contain cottonseed oil.
The exact origins of the cotton we currently grow as an agricultural crop are unknown. It was grown for fiber as far back as 300 BC in Peru, and in the Indus Valley in Pakistan as far back as 2500 BC. Scientists theorize that cotton might have spread around the world before the continents of Africa and South America drifted apart. The modern species we grow today is thought to possibly be an ancient hybrid of the Old World and New World species.