Boll weevil, beware! This enemy of cotton may soon meet its match -- not the result of a superior hybrid developed by modern agricultural research, but the rediscovery of a hardy breed of cotton that was domesticated 4,500 years ago in Peru.
The native Peruvian strain of cotton seems to be unusually resistant to insect infestation, and this quality along with several other attractive traits has earned it considerable attention among botanists.
The evidence so far comes from James Vreeland, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin, who stumbled across the plant on an anthropological field trip to Peru in 1978.
"I was told the plant was extinct, but I noticed the peasant farmers were wearing clothes with natural pigmentation. I asked about them and they showed me the cotton plants," he recalls. The plants are grown on a small scale by farmers for personal consumption.
Mr. Vreeland has visited the country several times in the past three years, and has had the plant examined by botanists in Peru. He says they have found the plant far more resistant to disease than the other types of cotton grown commercially in that country. The hardiness of the native cotton probably comes form its haviang developed over thousands of years, according to Mr. Vreeland.
The US Department of Agriculture is examining seeds from the Peruvian cotton at the University of Arizona cotton research center in Phoenix. Dr. Edgar Turcotte, a geneticist, says they do not have enough information yet to draw any conclusions about the plant.
Another interesting feature of the Peruvian naive cotton plant is that it grows in colors, unlike the all-white hybrid strains that dominate the commercial cotton industry. Many forms of wild cotton throughout the world have some pigmentation, but color on a domesticated plant makes the Peruvian cotton rare, according to Mr. Vreeland.
The colors of the Peruvian plant do not match the spectrum of dyes now common in clothing and textiles. But the subtle pigmentation does have variety. It comes in white, tan, brown, chocolate brown, and a purplish-gray.
Clothes made from this naturally colored cotton could have the advantage of not fading in the wash. Vreeland says there is no indication yet of how the fiber would hold its color in a mechanized wash and dry cycle, but he was struck by the brilliance of the fabrics worn and hand washed by the Peruvian peasants.
Since Vreeland brought back samples of the cotton to the United States, other countries have shown an interest in experimenting with the plant. It is now being grown on a small scale in Egypt, Guatemala, Mexico, as well as in the US.
One of the greatest potential advantages of this breed of cotton is its apparent ability to survive in arid soils. "It virtually grows in the desert," asserts Vreeland, who found it thriving in the desert coastal regions of Peru. Also, he says the plants are grown without the use of insecticides or fertilizers yet they have a higher cotton yield than the commercially harvested cotton in Peru.
Whether the plant can be adapted to any commercial use in the United States remains to be seen. It probably could not be cultivated here in its present form. The Peruvian cotton requires a climate that does not freeze, which would rule it out of most of the prominent US cotton-growing areas.
However, Vreeland hopes crossbreeding the Peruvian strain with US cotton will produce a plant with superior qualities. The need for less water would be attractive to cotton farmers in Texas and throughout the US Southwest, where irrigation represents a significant cost and water supplies are of growing concern.
Also, any gains in ability to resist infestation by insects would be welcomed by the cotton industry. Dr. Turcotte says making cotton more disease resistant is a major goal of research being conducted by the US Department of Agriculture.
Vreeland will conduct a study next year to document current use of the cotton and identify where it is grown in Peru. The study will be funded by the Peruvian government, the University of Texas, and the InterAmerican Indian Institute in Mexico City.