Have you seen the Demonstration Garden’s flock of “vegetable lambs?” Tended with loving care by Dallas County Master Gardener Jim and other DCMG volunteers, they thrive in the Garden’s raised beds. Though we now know these “vegetable lambs” by their contemporary name, cotton, during the medieval period in Europe, cotton was an imported fiber and the actual plant that produced it was unknown. So, noting its similarities to wool, people imagined that cotton must have been produced by plant-born sheep. In 1350 John Mandeville, after a trip to Tartary, wrote: “There grew there (India) a wonderful tree which bore tiny lambs on the ends of its branches. These branches were so pliable that they bent down to allow the lambs to feed when they are hungrie (sic).” Later in 1791 Dr. De la Croix in his work Connubia Florum, Latino Carmine Demonstrata wrote of the vegetable lamb:
Upon a stalk is fixed a living brute,
A rooted plant bears quadruped for fruit.
It is an animal that sleeps by day
And wakes at night, though rooted in the ground,
To feed on grass within its reach around.
Today’s scientific classification of cotton is, of course, much different from the zoophyte (i.e. an animal that visually resembles a plant) classification of the medieval period. The name of the genus derives from the Arabic word goz, which refers to a soft substance.
It is particularly interesting that cotton is in the Mallow family and is related to hibiscus. This resemblance can be seen easily in cotton’s flowers. Cultivated cotton is a perennial shrub. However it is grown in our area as an annual. Plants are around 3-5 feet tall with broad three to five lobed leaves. The seeds are contained in capsules called a “boll.” The many seeds found in a boll are surrounded by two types of cotton fiber. The longer fiber can be spun into thread and ultimately cloth, while the much shorter fibers, called “linters,” are spun into low quality fiber, giving rise to the term “lint.” Cotton requires a long growing period, full sun, moderate water and likes heavy soil. If this sounds like a perfect plant for the Dallas area, it is—- and is why cotton fields used to be numerous throughout DallasCounty. There are several different naturally occurring colors of cotton (white, brown, and green) and the DemonstrationGarden grows brown cotton and several different varieties of white cotton.
So the next time you visit the DemonstrationGarden, try standing by the cotton plants, closing your eyes, and just “Believe.” If you listen closely, maybe you will hear the vegetable lambs say “baaaa.”
***this is the first of several articles on cotton: the plant, its history, spinning and dyeing