Cotton 101: What does a cotton plant or field look like?

Although most people think of cotton in it’s final mature state, it’s important to remember that cotton has to grow from seed throughout the season to get to that point. And it’s amazing how often I’ve had folks ask me about something they’ve seen in a field as they were driving by, like this recent tweet from Sam Wildman:

So, I thought I’d put together some photos here, that will help me reply to hopefully lots of interest in southern fields! So let’s look at cotton plants and fields different times of year.

Planting Cotton (US typically begins mid-March & goes through May)

cotton at planting time

Cotton seed for planting is sold in both bags of 40-60 pounds — since seed size varies, the bag weights vary by variety. And its also sold in bulk boxes which farmers say provides them a way to get planters filled more quickly & efficiently to keep tractors moving. As I mentioned in a post on planting considerations, some farmers plant on beds  and others plant on flat ground. Similarly some use small planters and others use enormous planters on the back of the tractor.

Early-Season Cotton

early season cotton

Cotton always looks so vulnerable to me when its a seedling. The plants move much like sunflowers in those earliest days as cotton loves sun and heat (sort of like me that way!) The plants are usually dropped with a few inches of space between though some are dropped in twos or threes depending on the planting equipment which makes the plants seem even more spread out early on. Whereas corn and soybeans can appear to be at a 90 degree angle to the soil, cotton’s leaves look more parallel with the soil.

Mid-Season Cotton

mid-season cotton on the farm

The plants bush up with fruiting and reproductive branches quickly assuming there is good heat and sunshine. The leaves of most upland varieties are broad and remain largely parallel to the soil to provide a lot of photosythetic energy. When I’m driving along a highway, reminding myself about the different leaf shape and angle is what distinguished the two crops for me as many soybeans are planted on similar row patterns in the south and one you near canopy it can be hard to see the difference in planting population.

Cotton During Fruiting


I think cotton blooms are beautiful and my friend, California farmer Cannon Michael thinks Pima flowers are so pretty, they were the first flowers he gave a girlfriend who later became his wife. The plant produces blooms that are a creamy yellow bud that will open mid-day and self-pollinate (meaning no bees, wind, etc is needed) that afternoon. By the following mornings, the pinkish hue begins to develop and the bloom changes color indicating pollination has occurred. The bloom dries up and a small bloom forming at the bloom’s base pushes the dry petals off the plant. That boll gets really hard and grows using a lot of the energy photosynthesis provides.

Harvest Time Plants and Fields (US typically begins in September & goes through December)

cotton ready for harvest

As days begin to shorten and heat units are reduced, the amount of energy in the cotton plant also goes down. Leaves begin to change color and drop off and bolls begin to crack and continue opening to show the mature fiber insider. That’s when the fun of harvest gets started!

After Cotton Harvest, There’s Still Work to Do

cotton-fields-post-harvestCotton harvest equipment leaves the crop in the field til module trucks come to transport the seed cotton to the gin for processing. Farmers also want to cut all the stalks down near the ground & shred them to minimize over-wintering by insect pests. For many areas that prefer to plant on a raised bed, farmers will do this field work in the fall, allowing the soil to store moisture and “mellow” over the rainy season. In some areas, farmers may plant a winter crop of wheat which may be harvested before another crop is put in the ground.

Hope that helps you get the picture!

Pulling the photos together from a few years of living in the Cotton Belt was a lot of fun and I hope it helps you get a picture of what our rural roadsides look like through the year. I’m sure some of the descriptions were brief and I may have left questions. Would be glad to use your ideas for future Cotton 101 posts as I plan to build the series over the coming season. Ask whatever comes to mind in the comments and I’ll see what I can do on answers! There are a few Cotton 101 posts on this page and you should feel free to check out the latest posts with the Cotton 101 tag too and hear from people who love cotton (either as a farm or fiber product) check out the Cotton Guest post category!

About Janice Person

I'm Janice & this blog is about my passions -- photography, travel, agriculture & whatever else comes to mind. Putting all those things together is intriguing to me…. I can spend a lot of time soaking it up! It's almost always a colorful adventure!

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