In the Land of Cotton, Wild Cotton, that is!
by Cheryl Miller
Gossypium davidsonii, Aldogón or Cimarrón, as it is known in Spanish, OR (wild) Cotton, in English, is
a beautiful small shrub that is very prevalent here in Baja. Yes, cotton, believe it or not! With its
beautiful lemon-yellow flowers with 5 petals and a red dot at the base of each petal, a vibrant yellow
stamen protruding from the node; and with its large 3-lobe, heart-shaped, fuzzy green leaves on
mahogany color stems, this wild native, is a beautiful addition to any arid/semi-tropical garden too. Although two species of Gossypium grow in Baja, G davidsonii is endemic to Baja and Baja only. G harknessii varies a bit from G. davidsonii. Although endemic to Baja, it can also be found in parts of the mainland like Sonora, G harknessii has a bright green, shiny leaves and a brown grey stems. There is also a difference in their seed as well, which will be discussed later. Both species are found naturally from about Mulege and Comandu County, southward.
Either specie is a lovely, showy landscape shrub that stands about 3 to 4 feet high and wide, that improves in appearance with a little water, but is quite drought tolerant. Preferring well drained soils, full sun and a west exposure in gardens, G. davidsonii and its cousin G. harknessii (also called the San Marcos Hibiscus) are adapted to the desert climates and appear fresh, even when other plants start to loose their leaves from lack of moisture or extreme heat. They spread roots very deep and wide. Before flowering, brighter color green leaflets appear to be praying and are quite distinctive to the family. They are also listed on many xeriscape lists of approved plants throughout the US southwest cities and states, although they are very difficult to find commercially in a nursery setting.
Cotton! One of the world’s oldest, usable fibers; cotton production and textile use can be traced back over 5000 years ago in most of the tropical or semitropical to arid climate located ancient civilizations. It is prized for its ability to be woven, cool-wearing, acceptance of dyes, its durability and softness. In addition to its fiber, cotton seed has been highly prized for its trans-fatty acid free oil with no cholesterol which is used as a food supplement, in food processing, such as for potato chips, and in some cultures for medical uses.
All cotton or Gossypium species are part of the Mallow or Malvaceae Family of plants. The Gossypium Family has 45 genera and 900 species worldwide, domesticated and wild. As I stated, domesticated species have long been used for the production of fiber and oil. But the domesticated varieties vary from country to country. For example, American cotton is generally of the Gossypium hirsutum species, while Egyptian variety is an Extra-Long Staple (ELS) cotton from Gossypium barbadense, with longer fiber components, which makes a much softer textile than the American species of Upland cotton and the most prized fabrics in the world. The quality of the fiber allowed Egypt to capture 25% of the modern world cotton market at higher prices. Brazil, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, Africa (to name a few) and even Mexico has its own species of domestic cotton or a hybrid variety. Mexico’s centers for cotton production are Mexicali, Sonora, Chihuahua and Coahuila, basically, the northern Border States. Mexico, too, grows cotton mainly the oil, cottonseed meal for dairy feed and, of course, the raw fiber. Gossypium hirsutum L: is the species commercially grown in the Mexicali region and being the second largest producer in all of Mexico. The Mexicali region produces about ½ the production of the state of Chihuahua or about 1/6 of the entire country.
Such an important crop, you say, ¨Why isn’t anyone cultivating Baja cotton from G. davidsonii and G. harknessii native here in the Cape region? Well, these wild varieties of cotton are very, very different. Both Cimarrón and San Marcos Hibiscus have seeds with extremely short fibers. In fact, G. davidsonii requires a microscope to view the hair. And although G. harknessii has a hair of about 1/8¨long, it too certainly cannot be considered suitable for fiber use. In domesticated, commercial cotton species, when the boll matures and pops open, the long fibers on each of multiple seeds within the boll or pod, bursts forth and displays a white to creamy yellow ¨cotton¨ ball, backed by a papery sheath that splits in four parts. The separation of the fiber from the seed is difficult and was the reason Eli Witney’s Cotton Gin was such an important step in mechanizing the cotton world. G. davidsonii and G. harknessii do not make such a display. When there bolls mature and dry, they burst open in a woody pod with four sections, as well, but, without a cotton ball and with the seeds further protected by a woody top shell. Actually, these seeds are also very difficult to gather because of accurate timing and their woody protection,
Amazingly enough though, G. davidsonii is being studied worldwide by the world’s cotton industries as a possible hybrid species for the world domesticated
cotton plants. I was absolutely amazed at the amount of data, studies and scientific data in existence on our little Baja cotton plant. From extensive DNA studies, it is hypothesized that the great-great-great grandfathers of our Baja species originated in Africa. From there it is traced to mainland Mexico and south, to other species existing there now. From there, the species became isolated on the Baja, as the peninsula tore away from the mainland through tectonic plate movements. Over millions of years, G. davidsonii is hypothesized to be one of the world’s most singularly unique pure species that still has DNA ties to older species on the mother continent of Africa. As most species found in Asia and India, are tied to the African mother plant, this makes G. davidsonii a very interesting potential hybrid candidate for the commercial varieties of today.
All commercially grown cotton of today has been hybridized with other varieties, both wild and domesticated. Hybrids allow for higher yields of cotton, resistance to insects, disease and wider climate growing abilities. So far, G. davidsonii has been shown to have great potential in insect resistance, a natural defence to some varieties of curl-leaf virus and salt air tolerance. Over the past 20 years, several large markets, such as Pakistan, have lost several years of whole crops to such diseases as Curl-Leaf. Our Cimarron has been proven to contain DNA strands resistant to some of these viruses, but unfortunately not all. It is up to the scientists to figure that one out, but some are hopeful for help from our Baja Cotton.
G davidsonii naturally contains higher levels of lysine than all commercial species of cotton, as well. Lysine is an organic compound, one of the 20 amino acids, normally found in animal proteins, but is sometimes found in plants. It is an important element of our diets and is required for our bodies to synthesize proteins. With added levels of lysine, the cotton seed becomes a much more nutricitional commodity.
Aldogón is also higher in gossypol, a toxin and insecticide that is hopeful to be used in cross breeding with commercial species as a natural defense against the boll weevil, another major crop destroyer.
Cross breeding, though, is proving to be difficult though, as our isolated wild variety is a short day bloomer, reducing pollination time, and has a natural defense in its physical structure of the pistil-stamen tube that seems to reject or make cross pollination difficult. Time will tell whether out Baja Cotton will become one of the savior´s of this ancient industry. Go Baja!