Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Cotton (Gossypuium malavaceae)

Sir John Mandeville, during the 1300s, spoke of a wool-bearing plant he named "The Vegetable Lamb", or a shrub that had tiny sheep, bent its stalks down so the breathing, hungry babies could feed on the grass, and shed the dead specimens, which were then spun into thread and made into fabric. Even more preposterous than this tale is the fact that people believed it, but I suppose Wikipedia wasn't around since the birth of man.

Some say that Mandeville was referring to cotton, some, to a large fern thing that produced white fibers that were not utilized in cloth production. Then again, most cotton-related accounts of Europeans meeting the people of the Orient contain amazement with the non-animal nature of the fiber source, as they comparede it to wool, which was also spun into yarn, but is heavier and of course, requires pasture and more care.

Now, like most people, I took the clothes off my back for granted, and had a vague idea of what cotton looked like, thanks to movies and photos of US slavery. That was before I read Cotton: The Biography of a Revolutionary Fiber by Stephen Yafa, which chronicles the rough trade routes and eventual industrialization of the crop. (It was also before my grandmother told me that her mom's fancy clothing, made with jusi and piña, had to be taken apart and re-sewn again after every washing.)

Now another step in cultivating my appreciation for the clothes I wear is growing an actual cotton plant, whose seeds I nicked from Nueva Ecija. Over the years, I've heard about it being grown spottily in the Visayas and up in Ilocos-- but the weaving industries there have also began to utilize poly-threads, which are cheap but aren't nearly as gorgeous. I've recently confirmed from someone whose father founded our cotton board (meron?) that Bulacan indeed got its name from the word bulak, which is localese for cotton. I heard that the boll weevil spared no time in wiping out a lot of plantations, probably showing no mercy, as in this song.

The history of cotton in the country is a bit sketchy, full of anecdotes and "if I remember correctly"s, and will probably be more covered in a future post.

So anyway, the cotton plant is hardy with a capital H. My seeds came up almost immediately, and appeared to have the brashness of an okra plant. They are taller than me, which is more than 5 feet tall and 8 feet. I ignored them for a bit and was out of the house and suddenly, yellow flowers came out, then things looking like raw almonds started poking out.

This will begin to become tight and pregnant with white fluff. As it turns brown, the fibers will poke out.

During the beginning I got a bit excited and began prying them apart at this stage. Seeing the white stuff made me do it, with disappointing results.

At one or two points I had worms, which rendered the cotton rejected, in the compost pile.

But most were clean, white, healthy bolls, which I processed as such (similar in scale and amusement levels as the kapok processing I wrote about before).

You can slip the white fluff out with ease, and don't count on getting its casing with it, as that will require effort. When you do pursue the boll, you will see, below the fibers, a layer of seeds. Cotton used for cloth production has much longer fibers.

The seeds are in clumps, looking like segments of a very magnified blackberry, and they are elongated, so they quite resemble blood-filled ticks. I have nothing more to say but you must separate them and pick all debris out, and you will have a nice fluffy cloud of cotton for use, so that your organic facial toner gets organic treatment as well.

A bit more reading and watching, if you are interested: medicinal qualities of cotton root bark, and a quite dorky basic video.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Achuete (Bixa orellana)

The achuete, achiote (the latter being the Nauhatl term, used in the warmer Americas) or annatto is one of my favorite plants. I say this because it is all-around an interesting specimen, with a beautiful flower, a strange-looking fruit, and some great culinary and home-dyeing applications. It is safe to say that though we encounter the seed's coloration in some of our most famous dishes (kare-kare and pansit luglug), we rarely bump into the living specimen anymore.

With soft red spines in the young pods, the fruit looks like a small, heart-shaped rambutan (which is, in fact, what most people think it is when they see it). If that couldn't be endearing enough, break it open and you will find supple, moist red seeds, just ready to be used as lipstick or writing on friends' faces. Which is what I do sometimes, without a mirror, while gardening, and have only yesterday been met with "what's that on your lip?".

The young leaves begin brown, like the mango tree, and proceed to form a fat, shiny heart shape. My tree began flowering at such a low height, it was surprising. The blooms are pretty, pinkish, with the petals curving inward. These give way to a round berry-like thing, which is the full fruit waiting to happen.

Slowly these begin to grow the little hairs or spines that the plant is famous for.

The specimen above is actually abnormal, with few hairs but actually not quite mature. It's my garden's little, less aesthetically pleasing excuse for an achuete, but inside it actually had pretty fat, supple, pulpy seeds.

When the pods dry, they open up, begging you to take custody and propagate them. Their somewhat genital appearance reinforces the fact in your mind that they are usedas a "female aphrodisiac" in the Amazon.

Aside from the myriad of medicinal uses, the achuete's obvious strength in human use is its natural, red-orange color. It is used to safely give some life to pale food products such as cheese, spreads, and oils. This is because of the high amount of carotenoids in the plant, which is said to keep people healthy.

One particular indigenous use in Ecuador is the most interesting, for me. The men from the Tsachila indigenous group form a brilliant paste of achuete and grease and apply this to their hair. As they shave the sides of their head and keep a "crown" that is strikingly colored, they look like slick, beautiful birds (see photo above, taken from here). The achuete is supposed to represent strength to them, as well . A most curious fact is that the Tsachila only began wearing their hair like this after the Spanish arrived, supposedly to protect themselves from disease brought by the conquistadores. Below is a video showing the coloration process:

I dunno about you, but this gives me ideas for Halloween costumes or boring-day activities. The possibilities are endless, but my time today is not, so I'll end this post with a photo of a coat of mine, made with pineapple leaves and local cotton, then dyed with annatto seeds:

Monday, December 7, 2009

What Kind of Shit is That?!

While I was gone from my room, it seems to have been peppered with fat grains of white-tipped poo, which have been identified as lizard or butiki poo. Apparently they get brash when there is no activity in a place, and I am thankful to them for consuming any crawlies or biters in my absence (and they seem to have eaten a lot!)

Meanwhile, something slightly too massive for our chickens' digestive systems showed up on the (sealed) tops of what will soon be one of my water catchment barrels.

With a smell too mild to be cat poop (but still too offensive for too-close examination), this presents yet another mystery to me. There were bits of seeds and also what seemed like little larvae. Seems like chicken or avian poo, but as large as my wrist. Really.

I flicked it off with the bamboo coin bank I was hacking in half. As a side note, it came from an uncle's farm and I had carved some plant onto it, and I put some varnish on it from homemade resin distillate, but it was time.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009


I'm back home. It feels wonderful. Before I go back to posting stuff I'm gonna cavort a bit in the garden and lay in my bed.