COTTON AND COTTON SEEDS: HISTORY, HEALTH BENEFITS AND USES OF COTTON PLANTS
Cotton originated in the African and Asian continents, and has been used for textile making for thousands of years. Fragments of cloth from the Indus Valley Civilization in
Pakistan show that the people living there around 3500BC knew how to weave cotton into cloth. The first written mention of cotton was in the Rig Veda written around 1500 BC.
Modern medical science has found that parts of the cotton plant may have potential use in the treatment of HIV and cancer.It has been found in one study to have the ability to inhibit cancerous growths in head and neck
cancers. (2004 Dr. Christopher Oliver published in the Journal of Clinical Cancer Research.)
At one time it was thought that it could be used as a male contraceptive, but this has not been proved conclusively and the cotton seed oil industry has tried to play this down. In the States, cottonseed oil is touted as a good cooking and salad oil, and is finding its way into a variety of foodstuffs as it ‘enhances’ the flavour of fried foods, it is claimed because it has no taste of its own. It is also claimed to be a healthy oil, with manufacturers rightly saying that it doesn’t have any cholesterol. However it is not as healthy as some other plant oils notably olive oil, and there are concerns about its effect on male fertility.
The seed oil contains vitamin E and so is used in the cosmetics industry as this vitamin helps retain the elasticity of ageing skin and helps to prevent wrinkles.
The root bark has been used by women for centuries to induce abortion (useful after being raped by cotton farmers), to promote menstruation and to ease childbirth and menopausal symptoms.
The seeds and leaves are used in
South East Asia and the subcontinent to treat a variety of health problems, and are used both internally and externally for skin problems and injuries. Powdered cotton seeds mixed with milk are given to those with headaches, and an infusion of the seeds and leaves is said to be useful for cases of dysentery. Cotton seeds or the expressed juice from the leaves are used to treat skin problems, while the leaves can be made into a poultice for sprains or painful areas of the limbs. The seeds are ground and made into a paste with water and ginger for burns, and an infusion, a mixture of the seeds and leaves and perhaps also mustard seeds is used for snake bites and scorpion stings.
Cotton is a member of the Malvaceae family of plants so is related to the common mallow, marsh mallows, hollyhocks, hibiscus, okra, musk mallow, Indian or country mallow, the kapok tree, the red silk cotton tree, the dinner plate tree and the fruit, durian, among others. If left to its own devices, the evergreen shrub can grow to heights of 20 metres, although they are around waist high in fields. There are around fifty species of cotton plant but only four main ones, Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbardense being the dominant crop species and Gossypium arboretum and Gossypium herbaceum being the two older species.
In the 5th century BC the Father of History, the Greek historian Herodotus wrote this about cotton plants describing them: - “trees that bore wool, surpassing in beauty and in quality that of sheep’s wool; and the Indians wear clothing from these trees.” Much later, in the 1600s, explorers from
Europe also found cotton growing in North and South America.
In the Middle Ages this idea of Herodotus’ must have taken a firm hold in the popular imagination as people thought that cotton came from “vegetable lambs” which were to be seen in illustrations hanging from trees reportedly in India. These ‘cotton lambs’ or ‘vegetable lambs’ (fakes of course) even found their way into museums.