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23rd Annual International

American Society of Botanical Artists at Wave Hill


The Evolution of Cotton

Gossypiodes kirkii, Gossypium arboreum, Gossypium herbaceum, Gossipyium hirsutum, Gossypium barbadense (not shown: Gossypium raimondii)

From the air, the landscape surrounding my hometown looks like a big patchwork quilt. As it happens, that quilt is made of cotton—about four million acres worth of it. So it is little wonder that Lubbock, Texas, is an epicenter of cotton research. In fact, when I recently began a search for an heirloom species of cotton, I needed only to turn to…my tennis doubles partner, whose husband happened to be a cotton scientist. He, in turn, pointed me in the direction of another scientist who had not just heirloom species growing in the Texas A&M greenhouse north of town, but a rare specimen of what might be the very first ancestor of all cotton, Gossypiodes kirkii. She in turn pointed me to my own campus, Texas Tech University, and to Dr. Zhixin Xie, who was studying the genetic evolution of modern cotton. In his greenhouse was a treasure trove of cotton trees.


That is right. The plant in the wild is a tree, not the stubby little shrub that many of us associate with cotton, including me. In spite of spending most of my adult life in cotton country, it turns out there is much I have to learn about this plant. And over the course of the weeks that I was granted access to Dr. Xie’s greenhouse, several of the species bloomed, allowing me a rare opportunity to witness the life cycle of each species there, and create sketches of them on site.


There are some mysteries about the evolution of modern cotton, but this much we seem to know: modern cotton, Gossypium hirsutum and G. barbadense (pima cotton) are the direct descendants of three species, G. arboreum, G. herbaceum, and G. raimondii. And while there is strong speculation that Gossypiodes kirkii is the original ancestor, it is not known for certain. Each of these species has subtle, but notable differences in the morphology of their bolls. In this painting, showing the evolution of cotton as we currently understand it, I was able to demonstrate these differences with specimens from all but G. raimondii. While the plant flowered, it did not set a boll, which is not uncommon for this species. I could not find a source for a boll anywhere else, so sadly could not paint it. Included in the painting are, in order, Gossypiodes kirkii, Gossypium arboreum, Gossypium herbaceum, Gossypium hirsutum, and Gossypium barbadense.


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Gossypiodes kirkii, Gossypium arboreum, Gossypium herbaceum, Gossipyium hirsutum, Gossypium barbadense (not shown: Gossypium raimondii)

The Evolution of Cotton

Watercolor on paper

7 x 16 inches

©2020 Susan Tomlinson

2024 ASBA - All rights reserved

All artwork copyrighted by the artist. Copying, saving, reposting, or republishing of artwork prohibited without express permission of the artist.

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