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Cotton: the noble plant of Mississippi's legacy.

The history of Mississippi, noble and ignoble, joyful and woebegone, is intertwined with cotton, Gossypium hirsutum, a plant of the Mallow or Hibiscus family. It is hard to fathom how the state's economy was once almost totally dependent on this plant. Cotton built great plantations and created wealth and a cotton aristocracy, but it was also the cash crop for small farmers and sharecroppers.

As we all learned in history class, prior to the War Between the States, cotton was the country's primary export with the majority of the cotton going to Great Britain. The Southern cotton-growing states provided two-thirds of the world's cotton. With the invention of the cotton gin and spinning and weaving machines, large mills were built in New England. This textile boom created a domestic market for cotton.

Growing cotton was labor intensive. Under the broiling Mississippi sun, cotton had to be planted, chopped, and picked, and those who had to go to the fields were well aware that they lived in the "land of cotton." The toil and hard work associated with cotton inspired the blues, and the fascinating characters who were part of the cotton culture influenced Mississippi writers.

And as Southerners are prone to do, the word cotton was used descriptively. If invited to a fancy ball, one is in "tall cotton," but if the invitation never arrived in the mail, you might be sad or "in low cotton." Cotton can be used as a verb, as in you might not "cotton" to going to a fancy ball. And cotton can be used as an adjective, as in get your "cotton-picking" hands off my fancy ball gown!

Cotton was king. In Memphis, the National Cotton Council was organized in 1938 in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel. This was the perfect setting for the genesis of such an organization. According to author David Cohn, and we all must surely concur, "The Delta begins in the lobby of the Peabody Hotel and ends at Catfish Row in Vicksburg." In Memphis there is a Cotton Carnival and carnival royalty and a maid of cotton. Many kings and queens of the Cotton Carnival have been from Mississippi. Greenwood, "the cotton capital of the world," is also home to another annual Cotton Ball where maids hold court to the year's king and queen, all in the honor of cotton.

Cotton may have been king, but when the infamous boll weevil made its way to America, King Cotton almost lost its throne. This pesky little insect almost destroyed not just a crop, but this notorious weevil devastated an economy and a way of life. The boll weevil literally left everyone in Mississippi singing the blues. The likes of Brook Benton, Fats Domino, and Tex Ritter even recorded songs about this ruinous weevil.

However, the boll weevil was not victorious. In 1958, the National Cotton Council, seeking to alter the devastating effects of the boll weevil, lobbied to establish a national Boll Weevil Eradication Program, which has been highly successful. Because of this program, the boll weevil is no longer considered a serious pest in many cotton-producing states.

In spite of wars, depressions, unpredictable weather, and the boll weevil, cotton is still a very important crop in Mississippi. According to the Mississippi Farm Bureau, cotton was valued at $254 million in 2015. There were 825 cotton farms that produced 670,000 bales annually. Also, even though the numbers fluctuate according to the market or weather, Mississippi producers plant approximately 1.1 million acres of cotton annually.

A few decades ago, cotton fields were ubiquitous. Every Mississippi child knew a cotton boll when he or she saw one. But because our society is no longer as agrarian as it once was, there are many folks, especially children, who are not familiar with this plant that has been such a part of our state history.

Cotton is a pretty shrub. It has maple-shaped leaves, and the blooms, looking much like the hibiscus that grew in your grandmother's garden, are beautiful. The flowers start out white and turn a lovely rosy pink. And cotton blooms in late July or August when most garden flowers give up the ghost. The cotton bolls, of course, are the reason cotton is grown. In September and October when the cotton bolls form, the fields look as if they have been dusted with snow. "The cotton bolls are the moneymakers, but there are Mississippi souls with a penchant for the land and cotton who find creative ways to use the cotton bolls. The cotton bolls have inevitably found their way into floral arrangements, wreaths, and crafts.

Cotton plants, as pretty as they are, are not plants for the Mississippi garden. Because Mississippi is part of the Boll Weevil Eradication Program, one has to request a permit from the Department of Agriculture to plant ornamental cotton. It really is not worth the effort or worth fostering a boll weevil in the garden. All one has to do is drive Mississippi roads to admire this plant with the lovely blossoms and unusual seedpods.

It is in September and October that I get a little nostalgic about cotton. When it was time to pick cotton, many Mississippi schools, especially in the hill country, would close at noon so the country children could help pick cotton. During the day, trucks and wagons piled high with cotton would travel the roads on their way to the cotton gin. The roads would be littered with "cotton snow." All day and late into the night, the cotton gin would hum incessantly.

Times have changed and, in many ways, for the better. Nowadays, few people have to "jump down, turn around, and pick a bale of cotton." Giant machines with air-conditioned cabs pick the cotton. Cotton sacks are a thing of the past. The boll weevil has rigor mortis.

Yet, Mississippi and cotton are still partners. Cotton is very much a part of Mississippi history, and cotton continues to be part of our future. The cotton fields of home are still part of our rich Mississippi culture, and we can all "cotton" to that.

Mississippi producers plant approximately 1.1 million acres of cotton annually.

photography courtesy of NATIONAL COTTON COUNCIL OF AMERICA

Caption: CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Lush green fields of cotton cover the Delta's flatlands. The hibiscus-like blooms bud as white flowers. In the fall, beautiful blooms yield fluffy puffs of cotton. Full fields of cotton appear as snow-covered land. The blooms later turn a rosy pink before turning into cotton.
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Title Annotation:HOME S GARDEN: Garden
Author:Gratz, Margaret
Publication:Mississippi Magazine
Geographic Code:1U6MS
Date:Sep 1, 2017
Words:1088
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