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biodiversity explorer

the web of life in southern Africa

Genus: Gossypium (Cotton)

Life > eukaryotes > Archaeoplastida > Chloroplastida > Charophyta > Streptophytina > Plantae (land plants) > Tracheophyta (vascular plants) > Euphyllophyta > Lignophyta (woody plants) > Spermatophyta (seed plants) > Angiospermae (flowering plants) > Eudicotyledons > Core Eudicots > Rosids > Eurosid II > Order: Malvales > Family: Malvaceae

About 39 species worldwide, native to tropics and warm temperate regions. Three species are native to southern Africa, another species is naturalised and an additional three species have been cultivated in the region. Gossypium hirsutum from Mexico has become the predominant species in commercial cotton production worldwide.

Species native to southern Africa

List from Plants of Southern Africa - an Online Checklist (SANBI), Flora of Zimbabwe and Flora of Mozambique.

Gossypium anomalum


Gossypium herbaceum (African-West-Asian Cotton)

Native to sub-Saharan Africa and Arabia in semi-desert and savanna where it grows as a perennial shrub. It was probably domesticated in Ethiopia or southern Arabia and its cultivation spread to Persia, Afghanistan, Turkey, North Africa, Spain, Ukraine, Turkestan and China (first cultivation in China was in about 600 AD). Domestication included selecting for cultivars that grew as annuals.


Gossypium triphyllum


Species naturalised in southern Africa

List from Flora of Zimbabwe.

Gossypium hirsutum

Wild populations of G. hirsutum are found in coastal vegetation of Central and southern North America and were also encountered on islands of the West Indies and islands in the Pacific. Cotton remains dating to 3500 BC have been found in the Tehuacan Caves in Mexico and by 200 BC there is evidence of cotton string and fabric. Spanish explorers in the 1500's found cotton under cultivation throughout the Mexican and Central American lowlands. It was being grown and manufactured into textiles not only by the great Maya and Aztec civilisations but also by smaller tribes. Trade was often in the form of mantas (i.e. strips of textile as they come off the loom) and these were in beautiful colours and patterns. The last Aztec emperor, Montezuma, demanded cotton mantas as tribute from the 34 of the 38 provinces under his control. Cotton cultivation and utilisation had also spread into southern North America. This required the selection of annual forms capable of growing in long summer days outside the tropics. Cotton seeds in archaeological deposits in Arizona dating to 100 AD, suggest that cotton was under cultivation in this region at that time. With the arrival of the Spaniards in the Americas, the annual forms of Mexican cotton were spread to other parts of the world and during the past 200 years, commercial cottons have been derived mainly from Mexican Cotton. Cultivated in southern Africa and occasionally naturalised in Zimbabwe. See Flora of Zimbabwe.


Other species, cultivated in southern Africa

List from Glen (2002).

Gossypium barbadense (South American cotton, Sea Island cotton)

Probably once widespread along Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America, wild populations of this species are now only known from coastal Ecuador. The oldest cotton textiles recorded from South America are from archaeological excavations in the northern Chilean desert and date to 3600 BC. The first clear sign of domestication of this cotton species comes from an archaeological site on the Peruvian coast where cotton bolls  dating to 2500 BC were found that show characteristics intermediate between wild and modern domestic forms.  By 1000 BC Peruvian cotton bolls were no different to modern cultivars of G. barbadense. Cotton growing became widespread in South America and spread to the West Indies where Columbus encountered it. Cotton became a commercial slave plantation crop in the West Indies so that by the 1650's Barbados had become the first British West Indian colony to export cotton. In about 1670, planting of G. barbadense began in the British North American colonies when cotton planters were brought in from Barbados.


Gossypium sturtianum (Sturt's desert rose)

Native to central Australia. Cultivated for its flowers, not for cotton. See Wikipedia


Gossypium arboreum (Pakistani-Indian Cotton)

Not listed in Glen (2002) but possibly has been cultivated in southern Africa. Native to Northwest India and Pakistan and as far back as 2000 BC it was being used by the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in the production of cotton textiles. Some cultivars are tall perennial shrubs, others short annuals. One of the perennial cultivars was introduced to East Africa and 2000 years ago was being grown by the Meroe people of Nubia who are considered to be the first cotton weavers in Africa. This variety of cotton was spread to other parts of Africa including Kano in Nigeria which from the 9th century became a cotton manufacturing centre.


Cotton production and slavery

In 1793 an American named Whitney invented the cotton gin, which enabled the cotton seeds to be easily and speedily separated from the fibres. Prior to this, separation had to be done by hand, which was immensely time consuming. During the next 100 years after this invention, the proportion of the world's commercial production of textile fiber made up of cotton rose from <5% to more than 75%. Cotton became a major export of tropical countries. The growth of cotton production is intimately linked with slavery, and with the emancipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1835, cotton production collapsed in British colonies. However, slavery continued in the southeastern United States and the huge expansion of cotton growing in this region after 1820 greatly increased the demand for slaves. By 1850, 80% of the cotton supplied to English cotton mills came from the southeastern U.S. Even though importation of slaves into the U.S. was banned after 1808, the number of slaves grew from less than half a million to more than four million by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The American Civil War centred round the question of slavery with the northern states wanting slavery banned throughout all U.S. states. The southern states fought for slavery but lost the war in 1865 afterwhich slavery was abolished. In the 1950s, mechanisation of both planting and picking vastly reduced labour requirements leading to unemployment. Worldwide, cotton production is now through mechanised monocultures, with extensive use of fertilisers, pesticides and irrigation. 



  • Glen, H.F. 2002. Cultivated Plants of Southern Africa. Jacana, Johannesburg.

  • Sauer, J.D. 1993. Historical geography of crop plants - a select roster. CRC Press, Boca Raton, Florida.

Text by Hamish Robertson