Gossypium barbadense



Gossypium barbadense

L. 1753

pronounced: goss-SIP-ee-um bar-buh-DEN-see

(Malvaceae — the hibiscus family)


common names: cotton, extra long staple cotton

Gossypium is from the Latin gossypion, the name Pliny the Elder used for the plant; barbadense means ‘of/from Barbados’. The plant photographed was in a garden in Birt Street, Picnic Bay. The gardener believed it to be a native cotton, but I have not been able to find a native cotton (of which there are 17 species) that has yellow flowers – the Australian native cottons are distinctive in that their flowers are white, pink or various shades of purple. I believe this may perhaps be an agricultural escapee that has become naturalized near one of the cotton-growing regions.

This species probably originated in Peru, where it grows naturally, and where cotton products from it such as yarn, cordage and fishing nets date back to about 2500 BC. Cultivation spread over south and central America, and after 1492 it was introduced into Africa, Asia and some of the Pacific Islands. It was introduced into the US in 1785, where it was known as ‘sea island cotton’, as opposed to ‘upland cotton’ (Gossypium hirsutum). It is now widely cultivated in the warmer parts of the world, and sometimes naturalized; G. hirsutum is the species used to produce the bulk of the world’s cotton, some 90%.

This is a perennial shrub or an annual subshrub up to 3 m tall, with nearly all parts dotted with black oil glands. At first the twigs are angled, and later terete, and are often tinged with purple. The leaves are spirally arranged, and stipulate. The leaf blade is 3 – 7-palmately lobed with the central segment largest – sometimes the upper leaves are not segmented. The lobes are ovate to lanceolate, the base cordate, the margin entire, pedately 3 – 9-veined.

The flowers are solitary, usually on sympodial branches; the pedicel is shorter than the petiole, and usually bears nectaries. There are 3 bracteoles, erect, appressed against the corolla or fruit, orbicular to ovate, 4 – 6 cm long, with 5 – 17 acuminate teeth. The corolla is usually yellow with a dark red or purple spot at the base, with 5 petals 5 – 8 cm long, and numerous stamens forming an erect column 2.5 – 4 cm long, with short filaments; the pistil has a 3-celled ovary and one short style.

The fruit (known as a ‘boll’) is an ovoid to fusiform capsule about 4 – 6 cm long, beaked, densely pitted, opening loculicidally, 3-celled with several seeds per cell. The seeds are ovoid, with an acute hilum, black to dark brown, with a dense covering of long fine white woolly hairs (lint or floss) and a fine short tomentum (fuzz) everywhere, or only at the hilum, or absent.

The plant contains the chemical gossypol, which reduces its susceptibility to insect and fungal damage. Gossypium barbadense is widely used in African traditional medicine. In Senegal a leaf infusion is used as an eyewash to treat eye infections. In Côte d’Ivoire dampened fibre is used as a wound dressing. In Mali the leaf juice is diluted with water and used as eye drops to treat conjunctivitis. In Benin the leaf juice is taken to treat coughs. In Cameroon a leaf decoction is taken to treat jaundice, and pounded leaves are used in a poultice to treat such maladies as stomach ache and constipation. In the Congo the leaf sap is used to treat otitus, leaf decoctions are drunk for coughs, and the leaf is rubbed on the body to cure scabies.

The cotton plant is liable to be attacked by the caterpillars of many species of Lepidoptera, including:

      • the Hairy Leaf-eating Caterpillar Xanthodes congenita;
      • the Black Cutworm Agrotis ipsilon;
      • the Cotton Web Spinner Achyra affinitalis;
      • the Pink Bollworm Pectinophora gossypiella;
      • the Cotton Leaf Roller Haritalodes derogata;
      • the Cotton Tipworm Moth Crocidosema plebejana;
      • the Pink Scavenger Pyroderces rileyi;
      • the Brown Cutworm Agrotis munda;
      • the Lesser Budworm Heliothis punctifera;
      • the Cotton Looper Anomis flava;     
      • the Cotton Leaf Perforator Bucculatrix gossypii; and
      • the Spotted Bollworm Earias vittella.


Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.


Photographs taken in Picnic Bay 2013
Page last updated 6th January 2019