Animal ForageFood Plants - PerennialMedicinal PlantsSoil Erosion & ContaminationWater Contaminaton & Loss

Tree Cotton – Gossypium Arboreum

You might have seen the cotton growing out west — around St George, Gundiwindi and Dirranbandi in Queensland, Australia, and Moree and Narrabri in NSW.

It’s an annual crop — sown in the spring and harvested in the autumn — grown in flat plains country. The blocks are levelled by laser-guided machinery. However, they’re not quite level: there’s a slight slope from one end of the block to another, which allows flood irrigation.

Huge dams, in a country subject to long droughts, supply irrigation water. But these dams themselves take water from the rivers of the Murray-Darling Basin.

Cotton cultivation began in QLD and NSW in the 1860s when the American Civil War caused shortages in supplies. But that kind of cotton is a recent innovation, less than 200 years old. It was bred in America; ginning and spinning machines are manufactured to suit it. The machinery dictates a preference for fine, long fibres.

Previously, the varieties of cotton grown were perennial, i.e. lasting many years.

Tree Cotton, Gossypium Arboreum, a perennial. and is one of four species of cotton in cultivation; it’s only cultivated commercially in India and Pakistan.

It’s a shrub 2m high and 2m wide, drought tolerant but frost sensitive. Its fibres are coarser and shorter than the annual cotton, so it’s grown less than used be the case. The primrose-yellow flowers are attractive and the shrub, being bushy, would make a good screen.

It comes from Pakistan and India, having been cultivated by the Indus Valley Civilization. A Gossypium thread from Mehrgarh in Pakistan, used to string copper beads, is dated to 5000 BC. Fabrics recovered from the ancient city of Mohenjodaro, dated around 3000 BC, were made from cotton plants closely related to Gossypium Arboreum.

I visited Mohenjodaro, in Pakistan, a few years ago; the name means "city of dead people". It’s the best preserved city of the Indus Valley Civilization, and one of the oldest cities in the world. It used to trade with Sumeria by ship; cotton was probably an export even then, as it was later.

Although Tree Cotton is particularly suited to drylands, it grows well in Childers, Queensland as well. The seed pods open to reveal fluffy cotton-balls with seeds mixed in. Nature’s purpose is to use the fluffy cotton to disperse the seeds.

It was ginned (the seeds removed) and spun by traditional means for thousands of years before mechanized varieties displaced it.

However, Tree Cotton is hardier, more drought-tolerant and more pest-resistant than the new annual varieties.

Short-staple Indian cotton was replaced by long-staple varieties, more suitable for English and American ginning machines. With the change in types of cotton, the methods of cultivation changed and so did the pests. Modern annual varieties are genetically engineered — Roundup-Ready, and even with Bacillus Thuringiensis bred in. But many farmers say that the pesticides and herbicides ruin the soil; and there’s an ongoing debate about irrigation.

Tree Cotton counts as a permaculture crop. Being a tree and adapted to drought, it is deep-rooted and needs much less water than annual varieties — an important factor given the serious water issue of the Murray-Darling Basin. After harvesting, branches or stalks can be fed to animals.

Tree Cotton itself is currently being bred up, to make it more suitable for spinning machines.

In herbal medicine, Gossypium Arboreum is used to increase milk secretion. The Family Herbal, written by John Hill in 1812, recommended the seeds for coughs and "all disorders of the breast and lungs; they cause expectoration, and are very balsamic and astringent." (


  1. I have seen this plant in use at Tacompai organic farm in north-western Thailand. It was being harvested during Dec-January.

  2. Sea Island cotton, G. barbadense, is also perennial though I’m not sure how long its lifespan is. I’ve seen it growing wild in the Caribbean and Central America.

    This is very exciting, do you know who’s doing the breeding work?


  3. Has anyone considered investigating indigenous, Australian, cotton and other members of the hibiscus family, for Australia and Australian conditions?

  4. I have this plant growing in my garden in Derby WA. It is more than a perennial, it seems to be a ‘fixture’ It has been part of the fringes of the garden since I have lived at the property–over 15 years. It does not receive any care, attention or water apart from an occasional prune and it seems to constantly flower and produce cotton. About 10 days ago I harvested the cotton and filled a 5ltr ice-cream container. I noticed today that there is new growth covering the plant and buds forming already. I have been thinking to incorporate it within our eco-system on the margins of watered areas and wondered if you know of anyone else using it and if it has other uses apart from the cotton and the oil from the seeds. Also does it have any negative aspects? It’s a short in the dark sending this query but if you have any advice I would be grateful. kindest regards.

    1. this is a bit in Port Hedland where ive seen one or 2 plants in odd spots in Port. I collected a few seeds a couple of years ago and have planted several in my yard. I was worried that they may be a pest? and i wanted to see how they grew, how much water they needed etc….but yes…the crop of cotton is amazing and just seems to pump out little fluffy cotton buds. its now August and im picking the seeds out at night and wondering how i can utilise my crop.
      best regards

      1. They do not seem to be a pest. I have one tree at Dallarnil Qld, and have not noticed any little ones popping up over 8 years or more. I once wrote to the CSIRO urging them to breed up this cotton & develop machinery for it. But they had no interest. Captured by the Industry, I guess.

      2. Hi. I am a spinner and weaver and planted four of these trees last year. Once established they needed no care. Over their first 12 months I got half a kilo of handspun cotton. Harlequin beetles like them but I hand remove them. I am looking forward to this coming year’s crop and learning how to prune them so they don’t get too tall.

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