The Mallows We Weave

Occasionally I get so obsessed with a family of plants that I stalk each member thoroughly, to understand how it is they are woven together. Recently it was Euphorbiaceae. I was amazed by the variety of shapes and forms this one family could come up with, and intrigued by the antineoplastic properties being researched across a number of Euphorbiaceae species.

For the past few months, however, the family I have fixated on has brought us chocolate (Theobroma cacao), clothing and fibre for almost anything, slimy vegetables (okra, Abelmoschus esculentus), pungent fruit (durian, Durio zibethinus), gorgeous ornamentals (hibiscus, hollyhocks), wonderful specimen trees, and fodder trees when drought sets in (Brachyciton spp.). It is Malvaceae.

Half an hour before writing these words, I was sitting in a vacant block up on a hill overlooking the Cooks River in Earlwood, Sydney. On the land is a cave with a small midden in it. Now overrun by weeds of all sorts, the midden was a place for some of the coastal Aboriginal people of the region to gather, shelter and eat.

The ground is thick with shells from Botany Bay and the Cooks River. I didn’t discern any of the hand stencils that decorate the walls in the cave as having been the outline of a left hand with a little finger half missing, but they may well be there.

The role of the fisherwomen of Sydney was determined at a young age. Traditionally, a piece of string was tied around the left little finger of the young lady who was to become a fisherwoman, and when the end fell off from ischaemia (lack of blood) it was tossed to the fishing grounds with ceremony, the idea being that by giving the fish some of her hand, the fish would always come back to her hand.

These woman were not only responsible for fishing, but making and maintaining fishing nets and lines, known in the language of the Eora people Car-e-jun, after the kurrajong tree with which they made the line. The pithy bark was peeled off, soaked, pounded, then twisted and plaited. The lines were made into nets or used for fishing, where a hook was attached to the end of the line as in modern fishing, however the hook was carved from a shell. Numerous Brachychiton species were probably used, including kurrajongs (Brachychiton populneus), Illawarra flame trees (Brachychiton acerfolius) and Lacebarks (Brachychiton discolor) in the Sydney region and Queensland Bottle trees (Brachychiton rupestris) further north.

I recently travelled to Central Australia to walk and look at plants. I became saturated with the essence of the desert. The ability for small shrubs to flourish, when the last rain had fallen three months earlier, astounded me. One plant that caught my attention, often growing in dry creek beds, was Sturt’s desert rose.

Little did I know that this delicate pink flower was related so closely to the plant that is woven through events in human history, through the fabric it produces. No fibre has had such an effect on the world as that derived from the fluffy mass inside the seed capsule of Gossypium species, the cotton plant. Sturt’s Desert Rose (Gossypium sturtianum) hasn’t, to my knowledge, been exploited on a large scale as a source of cotton.

About 90% of the world’s cotton is derived from Gossypium hirsutum, with four other species featuring significantly in production. Cotton, unlike many plant-derived fibres produced from bast or inner bark material, is made from the hairy seed packaging of the plant. As a result, it doesn’t contain weak nodal points that the bast fibre (hemp, jute, linen) does.

Early cotton production developed independently in the countries of the Fertile Crescent and Central America, with evidence of cotton fabric having been used 5000 years ago. However, processing cotton by hand is laborious, as the seed needs to be separated from the fluffy cotton boll, which is almost pure cellulose. The inefficiency of this process ended in 1793, the year of the invention of the modern cotton gin. With cotton able to be produced en masse and a growth in world demand for the fabric, the new American immigrants saw the opportunity every good colonist sees: Exploitation.

The bourgeoning colony imported African slaves as well as exploiting the labour of second generation slaves as agricultural workers. It is argued that the invention of the cotton gin led to the American Civil War. Seen popularly as a moral stand against slavery, an alternative perspective suggests that the southern states had economic interest in keeping the slave trade alive where the north was less heavily reliant on a growing commercial agricultural industry for their prosperity.

In the aftermath of American slavery, perhaps the strangest country the world has seen popped up. An African nation colonised by African-American freed slaves with help of the American Colonization Society, a seemingly misguided benevolent organisation of sorts that believed freed slaves would have better opportunities in Africa and so repatriated ‘Africans’ to Africa. This became the birth of Liberia.

Two civil wars and some of the most unimaginable war crimes in history, and the devastation of the Ebola virus more recently, suggest they were wrong. Hindsight. And all of this can be seen as a result of, in part at least, the industrialisation of the cotton industry stemming from the invention of the cotton gin.

Australia’s cotton industry comes under scrutiny from environmental and safety perspectives. Vast water usage in a dry country is one sticking point, as is the absolute degradation of the land from over use of fertilisers, where the soil is reduced from an ecosystem to a mere substrate. Another issue is the use of genetically modified cotton, which we end up wearing and eating.

Yes, when you get chips with your chickpea and zucchini fritter burger at the hipster pub of your choice, they were probably deep-fried in GM cottonseed oil. On one hand it means the cotton crops have seen less insecticides, but you have to decide on GM yourself, it seems. The waters are too muddy for me to decipher harm Vs benefits.

Thank God Kenaf and Jute don’t have such harrowing histories. But they’re worth a mention. Kenaf (Hibiscus cannabinus), another mallow, and Jute (two Corchorus spp.), currently a disputed mallow, are both grown commercially for their fibrous pithy wood, made into bast fibre for rope and rough fabric like hessian, in much the same way Kurrajong was made into fishing nets.

Malvaceae. Where would we be without it? Naked, eating natural foods, and without inequality or war.Maybe that’s too much of a stretch, but it does sound like my love of the Mallow might be coming into question….