Since time immemorial, plant fibers have been used to make paper, rope, cloth, baskets, roof thatch, mats, and other items. Fibers produced by the cotton plant are classified as textile fibers because they are used to weave cloth (as opposed to cordage fibers, for example, which are used to make rope). Cotton fiber is one of the most economically important nonfood plant commodities on the market, and cottonseed oil, another product of the cotton plant, is the second most important seed-oil crop.
Cotton, Gossypium sp., is in the Malvaceae, a family composed of 80 genera and 1,000 species, many of which are grown as ornamentals. Genera of Malvaceae are found everywhere except in very cold regions, and several of these genera are economically important. For example, the young fruits of Hibiscus esculentus, a mainly tropical genus, are the popular vegetable known as okra. China jute, Abutilon avicennae, yields tough fibers that are used to make many products.
Although it is almost impossible to determine the origins of the many species of Gossypium, archaeological remains indicate that indigenous people of coastal Peru were harvesting wild populations 10,000 years ago. Fiber and boll fragments were found in the Tehuacan Valley of Mexico dating back 7,000 years, and cotton has apparently been cultivated in Indi
Technically, a plant fiber is a type of sclerenchyma cell characterized by very thick and toughsecondary walls impregnated with lignin. Commercially, however, the term "fiber" more commonly refers to a mass of elongated plant material that is a collection of either fiber cells or entire vascular bundles. Cellulose, the main structural component of cell walls, is a polysaccharide made up o f anywhere from 100 to 15,000 glucose molecules attached to one another. In the case of cotton, this creates a strong material that is absorbent, versatile, dyes well, and withstands many washes. As additional benefits, each cotton plant produces a large amount of fiber, and cotton costs less to process than other plant fibers.
In the United States, the leading cotton-producing states are Texas, California, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, and Arizona. Other leading producers of cotton include China, India, Pakistan, Brazil, and Turkey. While some of the market for cotton is being taken over by synthetic fibers, the cotton plant is still considered the fiber (and oil) of life.
References, Websites, and Further Reading
Heywood, V.H. 1993. Flowering plants of the world. New York: Oxford University Press.
Levetin, Estelle, and Karen McMahon. 1999. Plants and society, 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, pp. 290-94.
Simpson, B.B., and Molly C. Ogorzaly. 2001. Economic botany: Plants in our world, 3d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies.
"Cotton," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000. © 1997-2000, Microsoft Corporation.
Journal of Cotton Science
National Cotton Council of America
Related Reading in Stern, Introductory Plant Biology, 8th Edition
Chapter 1: What is Plant Biology?
Chapter 2: The Nature of Life
Chapter 3: Cells
Chapter 4: Tissues
Chapter 6: Stems
Origin and Development of Stems, including vessels, fibers, and vascular bundles, pp. 86-88
Chapter 8: Flowers, Fruits, and Seeds
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