By Chrissy Moore
If you asked me about my favorite herbs, you’d likely be surprised by my response. I tend to gravitate toward more obscure plants and topics in the herb world. My most recent herbal revelation is no exception.
One of my friends is a complete and total railroad aficionado. I love these kinds of people because they often have gems of obscure information at the ready for anyone willing to listen, and as a naturally inquisitive person myself, I am almost always a willing listener. Recently, this friend–I’ll call him James–was explaining to me the wheel systems on trains, pre-21st century. (I told you it was obscure, but I love it!). Midway through his explanation, he said, “And they packed the journal [part of the wheel system] with cotton waste, and…”
“Wait, what? What did you say? Cotton what?”
“Cotton waste. They’d soak it in oil, pack it under the journal, and the lubrication would help reduce friction between the journal and the wheel bearing.”
“What the heck is cotton waste?” (Clearly I was distracted from the main point of the conversation.)
“You know, scraps of cotton fabric or fiber or whatever.”
“Where did they get it? Did they just tear up old shirts or something? That’s a lot of old shirts for all the trains in the country!”
James cocked his head in response with a quizzical look on his face. I don’t think anyone had ever prodded him about this particular topic before. Leave it to me. Hah!
If you’re not involved in the textile industry in some way, as I am not, you may not be familiar with the term “cotton waste.” James’s wife, who is very familiar with cotton waste, she being a seamstress, intervened in the conversation and explained it to me. Essentially, it is the leftover scraps of fiber or fabric from clothes manufacturing or the like. As you might imagine, there’s a lot of it hanging around.
I was so excited to learn about this use of cotton–as obscure as it may be to most of us–because cotton (Gossypium hirsutum) is one of my favorite herbs! The fibers are used in so many applications, it’s hard to recount them all: from clothing (the obvious) to cotton swabs/balls to movie film cellulose (now a thing of the past); from cling film to its use in the food industry (cottonseed)… these are just a few examples. Talk about a jack-of-all-trades. And here was yet another use for this amazing plant: the inner workings of a train. Who knew?! James did, of course.
Because my interest was piqued–as any herbal nerd’s would be–I decided to dig a little deeper into cotton waste’s uses. The waste can be environmentally dodgy and potentially dangerous, since it’s basically flammable material laying about (a whole other topic). But as it turns out, there are various companies and non-profit organizations that collect the waste–either the fabric or fiber–and recycle it into things like new garments, furniture, or housing insulation. (You gotta admire people’s ingenuity.) According to one insulation manufacturer, their insulation is fire-retardant, mold/mildew resistant, has no VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and has excellent noise-dampening qualities. While I cannot speak to the veracity of those claims, the mere idea that cotton fiber can be used in a different format, yet again, is a perfect example of what it means for a plant to be “herbal.”
Whether used for culinary purposes, for fragrance or medicine, or in this case, industrially, plants that give and give and give again rank high on my personal list. My thanks go out to James (and the many enthusiasts like him) for inadvertently introducing me to a new use for this hard-working herb. Next time someone asks me about my favorite plants, I now have a great herbal obscurity at the ready to share with any willing listeners!
Photo credits: 1) Train journal with cotton waste packing (Steve Smith, Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway Museum); 2) Cotton waste (Artistic Fabric & Garment Industries); 3) ‘Mississippi Brown’ cotton boll, Gossypium hirsutum ‘Mississippi Brown’ (author’s photo); 4) Recycled cotton waste housing insulation (Bonded Logic).
Chrissy Moore is the curator of the National Herb Garden at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington, DC. As steward of the NHG, Chrissy lectures, provides tours, and writes on various herbal topics, as well as shepherds the garden’s “Under the Arbor” educational outreach program. She is a member of the Potomac Unit of The Herb Society of America and is an International Society of Arboriculture certified arborist.