Gossypium herbaceum originated in southern Africa but was first domesticated in Arabia, from where cultivated forms spread westward to Africa and eastward to India. At present it is cultivated in Africa and Asia, and sometimes planted in the New World.
Cotton is the most important group of fibre plants in the world. The main fibres of cotton plants are the longer seed hairs (‘lint’), used for making yarn to be woven into textile fabrics, alone or in combination with other plant, animal or synthetic fibres. Cotton lint is also made into other products including sewing thread, cordage and fishing nets.
Cotton textile cuttings and rags serve in the paper industry for the production of the best writing, book and drawing paper. Short fibres (‘fuzz’ or ‘linters’) are processed into a range of products, including papers, twine, automobile upholstery, explosives, plastics and photographic film. Linter pulp is made into various types of paper, depending on its grade. Linters have also been used for the production of cellulose acetate and viscose. Cotton stalks are processed into paper and paperboard, for instance in China, and into cement-bonded particle board.
Oil obtained from cotton seed is industrially used in a range of products, including margarine, mayonnaise, salad and cooking oils, salad dressing and shortening. It is also made into soap, cosmetics, lubricants, sulphonated oils and protective coatings. Locally it serves for cooking and frying. Blends of cotton-oil biodiesel and diesel fuel can be used in conventional diesel engines without any major changes.
The seed cake remaining after oil extraction is an important protein concentrate for livestock. Low-grade cake is used as manure. The whole seed can be fed to ruminants, which are less sensitive to the toxic gossypol in the seed than non-ruminants, or is applied as manure. Hulls are a low-grade roughage for livestock or serve as bedding or fuel. Leftover bolls, leaves and thin twigs are grazed by ruminants. Dry stalks serve as household fuel.
In tropical Africa Gossypium herbaceum has largely been replaced by Gossypium hirsutum and Gossypium barbadense as a source of cotton fibre, and its fibre is not much used nowadays. In Namibia the fibres of wild plants are used in cleaning pads, they are placed into quivers to separate arrows, and are used for placing medicines into the ears.
In Zimbabwe spinning and weaving of wild Gossypium herbaceum fibre was practised up to 1940, but the practice seems to have died out. In the Lake Chad area of Nigeria Gossypium herbaceum is planted to demarcate fields.
Gossypium herbaceum is widely used in traditional African medicine, especially root preparations. In Senegal a root maceration is given to new-born babies and sickly or rachitic children, to strengthen them. In Somalia a root decoction is drunk as an abortifacient. In Ethiopia the root is chewed in case of a snake bite.
In Namibia the powdered root bark is applied as a haemostatic. In Botswana root preparations are used for the treatment of heart palpitations. In Mozambique root decoctions are drunk as a tonic and to control vomiting, an infusion of the root against lack of appetite, an infusion of the roots of Gossypium herbaceum and Maclura africana (Bureau) Corner to purify mother milk, and an infusion of the roots of Gossypium herbaceum and a Cynodon species to prevent abortion.
The stem juice is applied against otitis in the Seychelles. The juice of the heated unripe fruit is dropped into the ear against earache in Somalia, while in Ethiopia the powdered fruit is applied on the head for the treatment of fungal infections.