Sometimes during the dry season in villages you see leafless, shrubby bushes or small trees bearing what appear to be clusters of cotton fiber. Sometimes in rainy season the bushes bear leaves as well as cotton, as shown below.


If you are familiar with cotton grown in the US this plant might stump you, because you know that cotton grown up north is herbaceous, maybe around knee high, and these plants in the Yucatan are definitely woody and can reach ten feet (3m) or more.

Well, in the Yucatan we have Tree Cotton, sometimes called Upland Cotton, Gossypium hirsutum. It's the same species grown in the US Deep South, except what's planted up north consists of cultivars that are treated as herbaceous annual plants. Along the Yucatan's northern coast, especially among the coastal dunes and along roads through the mangroves, Tree Cotton is common, and produces cotton fibers ranging from pure white to brownish.

Another woody cotton species, Gossypium barbadense, a native of South America, also is called Tree Cotton, and the two species can be hard to distinguish if they're not flowering. Our Tree Cotton flowers, which are about two inches across (5cm), clusters its stamens loosely, as shown below, while the South American species' stamens are more tightly packed together.

Tree Cotton flower

Our Tree Cotton's flowers emerge as yellow but after pollination turn rose-purplish, so often you see blossoms of two different colors on the same branch.

Fray Diego de Landa, in his 1566 book Relación de las Cosas de Yucatan, often mentions how the Maya, both before and after the Spaniards' arrival, slept under cotton blankets and in war wore cotton jackets as body armor. In Chapter 49 of Relación he writes that two kinds of cotton were planted: an annual dying after its first year, and a small tree that produced cotton for five or six years. One wonders whether he was seeing two cultivars of Gossypium hirsutum, or if maybe the other was Gossypium barbadense. I've not found the latter here, though that doesn't mean that it's not present.