Sunday, January 16, 2022

Witnessing a Cotton Plant

I had lived on earth many years before encountering the leaf of a carrot, or a cucumber, or a radish. Planting my first vegetable garden in high school, each leaf was a revelation. It was during college years when I finally passed by a field of peanuts during an environmental field trip in Georgia and Florida. Even then, we didn't stop to take a closer look. Doesn't seem right to eat so much peanut butter and still not have witnessed a peanut plant, with its curious habit of planting its own seeds.

Many more decades would pass before I witnessed a cotton plant, growing in a friend's garden in Durham this past fall. It had been planted for fun, not for the cotton, but it's impressive how much cotton the plant produced, and how much the cotton on the plant looks like the cotton you buy. 
Before the cotton boll opens up to reveal the cotton, the clasping sheath at the base can be seen to resemble
the capsules of our native rose mallow hibiscus that grows along the shores of Lake Carnegie. The plants are in fact related, both being in the plant family Malvaceae (mal-VEH-cee-ee), along with okra and cacao. Genetic analysis has also put our native basswood trees, Tilia americana, in the Malvaceae family. 

Doing some reading, it was surprising to learn that the two most widely grown species of cotton are native to the Americas (as are peanuts, for that matter). 

The cotton fibers evolved to catch the wind and carry the seed. Our local Hibiscus moscheutos has no such means of dispersal. The seeds are held loosely in the erect, open capsule until they are bumped by a passing animal or shaken by the wind. 

Standing next to the cotton plant in the North Carolina garden was another species native to the Americas: tobacco, also grown on a lark. 
Tobacco is in the nightshade family, Solanaceae, along with tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant, and peppers. Some members of the family that pop up on their own around Princeton are the nightshades, ground cherry, and Jimsonweed. 

Once one knows about familial relatedness among seemingly disparate plants, it's fun to look for similarities of form in flower or leaf, and begin to see a web of connection in the plant world.

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