During a visit to the Orman House on Black Friday, I was reminded of what an important plant cotton (Gossypium sp.) is, and how important. In the Orman garden, cotton was planted as an accent along a winding path. Clothed in its snowy bolls it was very pretty and Iím sure it was pretty this summer too with both white and pink flowers. Cotton is a close relative of hibiscus and has both pink male and white female flowers on each plant. Cotton had also been used in some of the decorations inside the house.

The plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, and India. The greatest diversity of wild cotton species is found in Mexico. Cultivated cotton has been bred to tolerate a wide range of climates and soil types.

Cotton has been in cultivation for at least 7,000 years and fabric found in a Mexican cave has been dated to 5,800 BC. The plant was domesticated and a textile industry built around it in both Mexico and India. Cotton has been spun, woven, and dyed since prehistoric times. Thousands of years before the Christian era, cotton textiles were skillfully woven in India.

Use of cotton fabric was spread from India to the Mediterranean and beyond around the time of Alexander the Great, possibly by his army.

Today the United States is the number one producer of cotton, with 95 percent of the cotton grown here Gossypium hirsutum, known as upland cotton or Mexican cotton, as it is native to Central America.

The fiber produced by cotton is meant to help the seeds disperse by wind. Selective breeding over the centuries has increased the length and strength of these fibers. Now the most widely used natural fiber in the world, cotton production accounts for one-quarter of the planetís cultivated land. In addition to textiles, cotton is used in fishnets, coffee filters, tents and in bookbinding. The first Chinese paper was made of cotton fiber, as is modern US currency.

Cotton is also used as an insert in medicine jars to prevent pills from being damaged during shipping and absorb moisture. The National Institutes of Health says you should never leave a cotton-filler in a medicine bottle once you open it because the absorbed moisture can actually lead to breakdown of the chemicals in the pills or capsules.

Cotton seed and cottonseed oil are highly prized as food for animals and humans. Cottonseed oil is one of the least saturated vegetable oils and contains many natural antioxidants. Until the 1940's, it was the major vegetable oil produced in the United States. It is used in mayonnaise, salad dressings, sauces, and margarine and is especially well suited to deep frying.