Green cotton is a heritage plant worth preserving

January 11, 2023

There’s nothing like flannel sheets on a cold winter night. And true flannel means cotton. Classic, long-lasting cotton. In Peru, cotton cloth 8,000 years old has been found. Cotton balls are common in hospitals for a good reason. Cotton can absorb up to 30 times its weight in liquids.

Cotton isn’t always naturally white. In fact, naturally colored cottons were grown by slaves well before the Civil War. In some instances, slaves were not permitted to grow white cotton at all.

Brown cotton was the most common colored variety grown, but other naturally colored cottons include blue, yellow, pink and even green. Fortunately, some families handed down seeds from generation to generation, and today you can grow your own green cotton.

Erlene’s Green Cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is a family heirloom from Erlene Melancon in east Texas. Erlene says she has been spinning green cotton for many years, and her grandmother used colored cotton in her quilts.

The fibers are light olive green. Harvest the balls of cotton, called bolls, as soon as they open so the fiber does not fade in the sunlight. After the fibers are spun and washed, they change to a soft yellow-green.

Cotton needs a fairly long growing season, and Erlene's Green Cotton will take about 130 days to produce fibers. The cotton plant will first bloom with yellow flowers, then form a large boll of fibers with attached seeds that are the plant's fruit.

Start Erlene's Green Cotton in 4-inch pots at the same time you start tomato plants. Keep in mind that cotton is a heat-loving plant that will not tolerate cold soil or air temperatures. Cotton requires a constant 65°F to germinate, so use a heat mat under your pots to help them sprout. Erlene's Green Cotton seed germinates in 7-21 days.

Cotton seeds can take up to three weeks or longer to germinate depending on the temperature. Set your potted cotton plants out in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Put the plants in full sun 18-30 inches apart in rows 5 feet apart. These are tall plants, often growing 3-7 feet tall. Your plants will begin flowering in midsummer, with cotton bolls forming a few months later.

To harvest your cotton, wait for the bolls to split open before picking them. Any bolls that split open after a frost will be damaged and should not be harvested.

Because this cotton is open pollinated, you can save your own seeds to plant next year. To be sure you have pure seed for saving, just isolate varieties by 1/8 mile to 1/2 mile or more.

Plant Erlene's Green Cotton indoors and set the plants out in spring. By fall, you will have tall, stunning plants with bolls of green cotton. Just in time to spin and weave into flannel for winter warmth.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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