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Gossypium, the cotton genus, contains around 50 species, ranging from herbaceaous annuals and perennials to shrubs or small trees, in the Malvaceae (mallow family), including several species grown for the fiber (cotton) obtained from the long seed hairs as well as for the oil obtained from the seeds. Cotton fiber is the most widely used of natural fibers produced for textiles, and cottonseed oil is the second or third most widely produced oilseed (after soybeans, Glycine max, and in some years, corn, Zea mays).

Gossypium, which has sometimes been classified in the Fabaceae (legume family), includes species that originated in both the Old World and New World tropical and warm-temperate regions. It is a textile crop of ancient origin, which was domesticated independently in separate parts of the world. The four most widely cultivated species today (from which most commercial cultivars and varieties are derived) are G. arboretum (tree cotton) and G. herbaceaum (levant cotton) from the Old World, and G. barbadense (sea island cotton) and G. hirsutum (upland cotton, which accounts for the largest share of world production) from the New World.

Gossypium plants vary considerably in height, depending on species and growth form; the major cultivated species range from 0.3 to 3.5 m (1 to 10 ft) or more. They generally have simple leaves with 3 to 9 palmate lobes, and have black oil glands dotted on leaf and stem surfaces. Flowers may occur singly or in small clusters, often in the axils (when leaves join stem); they have 5 white or yellow petals, sometimes purple at the center. The fruit is a papery or woody-skinned capsule, the “boll,” that readily splits lengthwise along each of its 3 to 5 segments. The seeds contained within have the very long seed hairs that are harvested for making textiles (the staples), and may also be covered with shorter, wooly hairs (tomentum, lint, or linters) that have more limited use for textiles but can be used in other products, including surgical dressings, cellulose insulation, and paper products.

After the fibers have been removed from the seeds, in the process known as ginning, the seeds may be pressed for oil, which is edible by humans after processing to remove the toxic polyphenolic constituent, gossypol. The refined oil is used in processed foods including margarine, shortening, salad dressings, and for cooking. Cottonseed oil is also used in the manufacture of various industrial products, including the manufacture of soaps and lubricants. The cottonseed meal that remains after cotton fibers have been removed and seeds have been pressed for oil is used in livestock feed and as an organic fertilizer. Some species and varieties are also planted as ornamentals.

The world commercial production of cotton in 2010 was 23.5 million metric tons (mmt) of cotton fiber (lint), along with 42.4 mmt cottonseed oil (which may be processed from the same plants). China, India, the U.S., Pakistan, Uzbekistan, and Brazil were the leading producers of both cotton lint and cottonseed oil.

(Bailey et al. 1976, Ecocrop 2012, FAOSTAT 2012, Flora of China 2007, O’Brien et al. 2005, van Wyk 2005.)


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