The wild cotton plant, Gossypium herbaceum subsp. africanum, is often only noticed when in fruit or when bearings its hibiscus-like flowers.
Gossypium herbaceum is subdivided into 2 subspecies: subsp. africanum, the wild form is a perennial shrub, whereas subsp. herbaceum, comprising the cultivated forms, are perennials or annual shrubs.
Gossypium herbaceum subsp. africanum is a shrub growing from 1.5-–2 m in height. It has simple, alternate, round leaves with 5–7 rounded lobes ending in a sharp tip. The leaves are hairy and veined from the base.
Flowers are in the leaf axils or on the ends of the short side branches. They are yellow with purple in the centre. Each of the yellow flowers has three large bracts, toothed at the margins, forming a so called epicalyx around the real calyx. The main stem is hairy, green to pale brown colour. The fruit is a 3-lobed, hard, smooth capsule, splitting open to reveal cotton-clad seeds. The wild cotton flowers from October to June.
Gossypium herbaceum subsp. africanum is listed on the Red List of South African plants as LC (Least Concern). A taxon is Least Concern when it has been evaluated against the five IUCN criteria and does not qualify for the categories Critically Endangered, Endangered, Vulnerable and Near Threatened, or the South African categories Critically Rare, Rare or Declining. Widespread and abundant taxa are typically listed in this category.
Distribution and habitat
The wild cotton is endemic to southern Africa and is widely distributed in the subtropical region, from Namibia and Angola on the west, through Botswana to Zimbabwe and Mozambique to the east and South Africa. In South Africa it occurs in Limpopo, Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal.
Derivation of name and historical aspects
The genus name Gossypium is derived from the Arabic word ‘goz' which is translated as ‘soft substance'. Gossypium means cotton in Latin and herbaceum means herbaceous (not woody). The genus has four species that are now widely used for commercial use, Gossypium barbadense, G. arboreum, G. hirsutum and G. herbaceum.
Gossypium herbaceum subsp. africanum is pollinated by birds and bees.
Uses and cultural aspects
In Namibia the powdered root bark of the wild cotton plant is applied as a haemostatic. In Botswana root preparations are used for the treatment of heart palpitations. It was cultivated in the past for its cotton but later replaced by G. hirsutum or G. barbadense.
Different parts of the African continent use Gossypium herbaceum for various purposes. In Senegal, root maceration is given to newborn babies and ill children to strengthen them. In Somalia, a root decoction is drunk as an abortifacient and the juice of the heated unripe fruit is dropped into the ear against earache. In Ethiopia, it is used as a vaccine in case of a snake bite incident, and also applied to treat fungal infection.
Growing Gossypium herbaceum subsp. africanum
Gossypium herbaceum subsp. africanum is propagated by seed and by cuttings, grafting and budding. Seedlings emerge 5 – 15 days after sowing and the first true leaf unfolds seven to nine days later, but these processes vary with temperature. Upon germination, seedlings initiate a long taproot. It grows well in deep, light to heavy, well-drained soil.
References and further reading
- Pooley, E. 1998. A field guide to wild flowers of KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Region. Natal Flora Publications Trust.
- Schmidt, E., Lotter, M. & McCleland, W. 2000. Trees and shrubs of Mpumalanga and Kruger National Park . Jacana.
- Van Wyk, B.-E. & Gericke, N. 2000. People's plants: a guide to useful plants of southern Africa . Briza Publications, Pretoria.
Walter Sisulu National Botanical Garden