Pied Beauty

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

Glory be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:

Praise him.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Them Old Cotton Fields

Crop is maturing...
All this rain can't be good for the cotton farmers.  It's about time to harvest -- most of the bolls are open and fluffy bits of cotton are lining the roads alongside cotton fields.  Cotton is harvested by machine nowadays, thank goodness, and has been for quite a while.  I can remember, though, being taught as a child how to pick it by hand.  I had accompanied a neighbor on a trip back home to Mississippi and Louisiana to help watch her babies while she got the crops in with her family.  Us bigger kids helped pick beans, but generally stayed away from the cotton fields.  One day, however, in the interest of our further education, we were all handed a tow sack as tall as we were and hustled out into the cotton.  My fingers prickle to this day when I remember trying to fill that bag with weightless white fluff.

Cotton has been cultivated in Southeast Texas since settlers of European descent first arrived, though the plant is native to Mexico.  It has a pretty flower, reminiscent of the hibiscus, mallow and okra, to which it is related.  The flower is creamy or pale yellow when it is newly opened and fades to a deep, rich pink.  It's odd to see both yellow and pink flowers on the same plant, but it happens all the time.

Cotton Boll Weevil Trap
Did you know that the cotton boll weevil, famous in song and story, is almost completely eradicated in the South?  Growers banded together to solve this problem, beginning in the late 1970s.  Each field is ringed with pheromone traps, which are monitored regularly.  When the traps indicate that the insects have reached a "trigger" population level, insecticides are applied to the fields.  Previously, farmers sprayed according to a timetable, regardless of insect population.  And the boll weevils are notoriously hard to control, since only the adults, outside the boll, are affected by insecticides.  You can always tell a cotton field, even when the plants are the tiniest seedlings, by the bright green traps hung on wooden stakes around the edges.

This cotton has been defoliated
Once the "bolls" or seed pods are mature, the cotton is normally defoliated to make harvesting easier.  In my neighborhood, some of the fields have been defoliated and some are still green.  It's hard to get the equipment into the fields when they are wet, but my guess is they will be harvesting very soon.

King Cotton

Wondering how organic cotton growers combat the boll weevil?  They piggyback on the success of conventional farmers in eradication zones:  if the conventional growers have eradicated a great number of boll weevils, it stands to reason they are less of a problem in organic fields.  They also use short-season cotton, hoping to get the crop in before weevil damage occurs.  There are a few natural predators of the boll weevil, but they are not readily available commercially.  Organic growers also use pheromone traps, and if weevils are discovered, they use pyrethrum as an insecticide and diatomaceous earth as a repellant.  As a last resort, the boll weevils are picked off the plants by hand.


  1. Very good info on the boll weevil. I did not know how they took care of this problem. I also did not realize how long hand picking was done or that your fingers prickled after doing it. So much to learn from gardeners and farmers across the country.

  2. I have always worn mostly cotton clothing. As I stand here at the laptop - I am all in cotton. I used to think of it as a green and natural fibre. Was apalled/disconcerted to discover that the reason why they invented GM cotton, is because it is a crop which is heavily treated with poison. Not in fact what I want to wear on my skin, or sleep on, or dry myself with. You show us defoliated plants. Defoliated with? Is that GM cotton? We live with cropdusters for the wheatfields. Glad that defoliated cotton is NIMBY (even if it is on my back ;>(

  3. Hello GWGT. Yes, those bolls really hurt -- pickers develop callouses on their fingers.

    Hi Diana (EE): As far as I know, this is not GM cotton. It is planted around here, but isn't as common. The gene packages are very specific and if you don't need all the traits, it usually isn't worth the money to buy one. The plants are defoliated with either a herbicide or a hormone (Plant Growth Regulator). The kind of chemical depends on the crop conditions and the kind of picking equipment. I don't know about all the continents, but in the US, virtually all cotton is harvested using defoliants. There is no indication that the defoliants remain on the cotton fibers, particularly after they are processed. Thanks for the comments!

  4. Quilts and cotton ... would this blog appeal to you? http://www.africancotton.co.za/

  5. I did like that blog -- especially the schwe schwe fabric. Something I'm going to have to find out more about! Thanks a lot!

  6. Hi Elizabeth,
    This was a very interesting post on cotton. I do love to see it growing and swaying in large open fields.

    Thank you so much for your visits to my garden. I am so glad to meet you and please forgive my bad blogging habits of slow return visits.

    Have a wonderful day.