Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Desert cotton flower

with 29 comments

Desert Cotton Flower 2535

On October 1, 2014, one of the native plants I saw during a couple of hours at the botanical garden in Tucson named Tohono Chul was Gossypium thurberi, a bush in the mallow family that people call desert cotton or wild cotton.

To learn some interesting things about the human use of cotton, which has been going on for thousands of years in various parts of the world, you can check out the relevant Wikipedia article.

© 2015 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

January 9, 2015 at 5:45 AM

29 Responses

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  1. OOOOooooo pretty! Claps with glee! I am missing my morning summer flowers/weeds!


    January 9, 2015 at 8:06 AM

    • I have to say that even here in Austin the last few mornings of near-freezing (or actually freezing) temperatures have put an end to most of the residual wildflowers I was still enjoying seeing. Even then, I expect that if I look closely I’ll find that a few have survived.

      In the meantime, these looks back into autumn will fill our floral quota.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2015 at 10:07 AM

  2. So pretty. I recognize its “mallowness”. Is it called cotton plant because of its color, or does it produce cotton later?


    January 9, 2015 at 8:48 AM

    • That’s a good way to put it, and I recognized its “mallowness” too. It reminds me of a white variety that we have here of a flower in the mallow family called a winecup.

      To answer your question, this plant does produce cotton later. The genus Gossypium includes the cotton species that are planted commercially. I didn’t know any of that before my trip, but I’ve learned a little.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2015 at 10:15 AM

  3. I’ve always cottoned to Thurber, but I’ve never known about Thurber cotton. It was interesting to compare this plant to the cultivated varieties I found in the Panhandle. The difference in fiber production is amazing. When I opened a boll in the field, I had to really search to find the seeds. WIth desert cotton, the fibers seem almost an afterthought.

    I might have mentioned this, because I found it so interesting. When apple production first began in the Texas hill country, many orchards were lost to cotton rot root: Phymatotrichopsis omnivora. That “omnivora” could be worrisome.


    January 9, 2015 at 10:01 AM

    • Your witty comment about cottoning to Thurber reminds me of a line by P.D.Q. Bach from “The Seasonings”: “If you want to curry favor, favor curry.”

      Horticulturalists have made great strides in getting plants to do things that are useful for people. Varieties of sunflowers now produce huge heads with larger seeds than any sunflower that grew naturally. Corn apparently started out as a puny thing before centuries of breeding brought us the large, grain-heavy cobs we’re used to now. Add to that the fiber-heavy cotton with few seeds that you observed in the Panhandle.

      Your “omnivora” reminds me of a conundrum I think I heard as a teenager from a friend’s father (though I could have read it somewhere). A wizard once appeared in the court of a king and held up a glass vial with a liquid in it. He said the liquid was a magical acid so powerful it could eat through any substance on earth, and he offered to sell it to the king. The king was no fool, though, and immediately turned down the offer. How did the king know the wizard wasn’t telling the truth? Answer: an acid that could eat through any substance would have eaten through the glass vial too.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2015 at 10:35 AM

  4. What a beauty! It seems cotton (the fabric) is increasingly difficult to find these days. It’s all polyester as far as the eye can see. It takes a dedicated search to find the real thing. I wonder if this is true where you are? I know there used to be a lot of cotton grown in Texas.


    January 9, 2015 at 12:44 PM

    • I don’t often shop for clothing, but my impression is that there’s no shortage of cotton clothing in the United States. As for Texas, here’s what I just found in a Wikipedia article: “Texas produces more cotton than any other state in the United States. With eight production regions around Texas, it is the state’s leading cash crop. Texas produces approximately 25% of the country’s cotton crop on more than 6 million acres, the equivalent of over 9,000 square miles (23,000 km2) of cotton fields.”

      That includes central Texas, and if I drive over to the eastern edge of Austin that is on the Blackland Prairie I can see cotton fields.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 9, 2015 at 1:17 PM

      • I find that very interesting. Does cotton deplete the soil very much? Is the clothing manufactured in the US? Sorry, I really should do my own research–I’ll let you know what I find out.


        January 9, 2015 at 5:41 PM

        • Okay, do let us know.

          Steve Schwartzman

          January 9, 2015 at 6:15 PM

        • I haven’t worn polyester for years. Here in Houston, cotton, linen or silk are the ony way to go, as they are much cooler fabrics. There’s a ready supply of cotton clothing, although Made in USA is hard to find. Cotton is grown in south Texas and southwest Texas, too, and in great quantities.

          Cotton can deplete the soil, but no more than any other crop, from what I understand. In the Mississippi Delta, crimson clover often is used as a cover crop between cotton plantings, to put nitrogen and other nutrients back into the soil. Here’s a view of a Mississippi field planted in crimson clover, near the old Doro Plantation.


          January 10, 2015 at 8:14 AM

          • Thanks. All that information about cotton just bolls me over.

            The red clover that’s commonly planted along highways in east Texas (and elsewhere, from what you’ve said) isn’t native to North America, but I guess nitrogen is still nitrogen. I wonder if our native bluebonnets, which are in the same botanical family as clover, could serve the same nitrogen-replenishing purpose in cotton fields in Texas.

            Steve Schwartzman

            January 10, 2015 at 8:28 AM

            • A farmer who helped educate me on all this said that red clover and crimson clover are different. Red clover is often found in pastures, but crimson clover is the better cover crop. I haven’t explored the difference between the two.


              January 10, 2015 at 8:30 AM

            • I see. It’s a whole different world when you look at it with agriculture and livestock in mind.

              Now I’m reminded of the 1968 song in which “Crimson and clover, over and over” gets sung over and over.

              Steve Schwartzman

              January 10, 2015 at 5:55 PM

          • Thank you for this information and the link to the photo of clover, which is quite lovely, too. Do you know what happens to cotton grown in Texas? Is the raw cotton sent to China or someplace to be made into cotton thread, fabric and clothing? Here in Victoria, BC, we can buy cotton clothing, towels and sheets, but it often has some synthetic content. If it’s 100% cotton, it is sometimes labelled “Egyptian cotton”. Silk from China was abundant at one point (mid-1990’s), but I don’t see it much anymore. I don’t see linen at all, but maybe I need to look in higher-end shops. 🙂


            January 11, 2015 at 1:14 PM

            • It seems that in 2012, the total value of the Texas cotton crop was $2.2 billion. Exports of cotton fiber and seed accounted for $1.6 billion. I suspect the bulk of the exports went to Central and South America, but I don’t know that for sure.I’m only assuming so because so much of the cotton clothing I buy is made there.

              I think to be labeled “Egyptian cotton,” the product actually has to have been sourced from cotton grown in Egypt. It’s what’s known as long staple cotton. The fibers are very long, which gives it a great luster and a softer hand. It has a price tag to go with it, of course. I just looked at some 1500 count Egyptian cotton sheet sets. As we say in Texas, they sure are proud of those things.


              January 11, 2015 at 2:09 PM

  5. In the first photo in the Wiki article, the cotton could be mistaken for a marshmallow tree. 😀


    January 10, 2015 at 6:19 AM

  6. I was looking at a photo of okra this morning, and suddenly thought, “I believe I recognize that.” Indeed, I did. The scientific name of the okra is Abelmoschus esculentus, and it’s a member of the mallow family. I never would have associated okra, cotton, hibiscus and mallows (including the marsh mallow) but related they are.

    Not only that, the same qualities that make okra distasteful to some people have made the confection known as marshmallow possible.


    January 10, 2015 at 8:41 AM

    • The magic word appears to be mucilaginous. I wonder if okra makes for good glue.

      Growing up as a suburban/urban person, I had no idea what most of the plants that give us our vegetables or our natural fibers look like, and I often still don’t. It’s always a revelation when I learn a relationship like the one you mentioned among okra, cotton, hibiscus and mallows.

      Steve Schwartzman

      January 10, 2015 at 9:23 AM

  7. Beautiful detail, Steve. I have a particular fondness for white flowers with touches of pink, as if they are blushing.


    January 10, 2015 at 10:55 AM

  8. This is a lovely, subtle little flower. I think I like the shadow in the center of it. And I find the very round shape of it to be almost unusual although this wouldn’t necessarily be so in flowers, there’s just something about it…


    January 10, 2015 at 2:20 PM

  9. I was going to say it looks exactly like a mallow! Cotton, huh?


    January 15, 2015 at 4:28 PM

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