Cotton

Cotton flowers change from pale yellow or white to bright reddish-pink on a farm in Darlington County.

This time of year, I love to see the beautiful, weed-free fields of cotton full of flowers. This heralds an abundance of the snowy-white fiber that will be harvested in the fall.

On the first day, the cotton flowers are a yellowish-white color, the pollen is shed and the following day they turn a reddish-pink and begin to fold up. The day after that, they fall off the plant and, if pollination was successful, the immature cotton boll begins to form. This cycle led to the somewhat morbid song or rhyme heard on cotton farms in bygone days: “First day white, next day red, third day from my birth, I'm dead.”

Interestingly, there are other plants in the same family as cotton (botanically known as the mallow family, Malvaceae) that do the same thing.

One of them is very common in our area, the Confederate-Rose (Hibiscus mutabilis). It is not a rose at all, but a mallow, and the flowers change color over a few days just like cotton flowers. There is a single variety with just a few petals, and a double variety that does look a lot like a tea rose. The leaves are quite large and shaped a lot like cotton or maple leaves.

There is a gigantic Confederate-Rose specimen in front of Florence-Darlington Technical College, where I shall return this fall to watch those great big flowers change color from white to bright pink.

Another cotton-kin plant is the Rose-of-Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus). It’s a tough, old-timey shrub or small tree with flowers shaped just like a badminton birdie. They come in a wide variety of flower colors, but unfortunately the leaves are a favorite food of the Japanese beetle. Let us not forget that okra and cotton are also close kin. The okra flower is yellow and tiny compared to cotton. And rather than fiber, they produce tasty pods ready for the stew pot or deep fryer.

I had the opportunity this week to identify a wildflower that is kin to cotton. A farmer in Marion County sent a photo of a wild plant with a large white flower growing in a fallow field. I could tell from the picture that it had the same flower structure as cotton.

I was pleased to find its name in my flower book: Rose Mallow (Hibiscus moscheutos). The flowers of this plant vary in color from white to pink to red (on separate plants), all with a red eye. It is the parent of many ornamental hibiscus hybrids and is highly recommended for shoreline plantings., but often in ditches around the Pee Dee.

More information on various kinds of hibiscus and mallows is included in our fact sheet at the Clemson Extension Home and Garden Information Center at https://hgic.clemson.edu/factsheet/hibiscus/.

Trish DeHond is the home horticulture agent and Master Gardener coordinator for Clemson Extension in Darlington and Florence counties. She can be reached by email at pdehond@clemson.edu