Cotton is a soft, fluffy staple fiber that grows in a boll, or protective capsule, around the seeds of cotton plants of the genus Gossypium. The plant is a shrub native to tropical and subtropical regions around the world, including the Americas, Africa, India, and Pakistan. The fiber most often is spun into yarn or thread and used to make a soft, breathable textile, which is the most widely used natural-fiber cloth in clothing today. The English name derives from the Arabic (al) qutn قُطْن , which began to be used circa 1400. The botanical purpose of cotton fiber is to aid in seed dispersal.
Successful cultivation of cotton requires a long frost-free period, plenty of sunshine, and a moderate rainfall, usually from 600 to 1200 mm (24 to 48 inches). Soils usually need to be fairly heavy, although the level of nutrients does not need to be exceptional. In general, these conditions are met within the seasonally dry tropics and subtropics in the Northern and Southern hemispheres, but a large proportion of the cotton grown today is cultivated in areas with less rainfall that obtain the water from irrigation. Production of the crop for a given year usually starts soon after harvesting the preceding autumn. Planting time in spring in the Northern hemisphere varies from the beginning of February to the beginning of June.
The area of the United States known as the South Plains is the largest contiguous cotton-growing region in the world. While dryland (non-irrigated) cotton is successfully grown in this region, consistent yields are only produced with heavy reliance on irrigation water drawn from the Ogallala Aquifer. Since cotton is somewhat salt and drought tolerant, this makes it an attractive crop for arid and semiarid regions.
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