Find Black Cotton plants from online specialty nurseries

January 3, 2019

Our friend was so impressed when she called her son at college and heard the Minute Waltz in D-flat by Chopin blaring in the background. She started to compliment her son on his taste in classical music when he interrupted, “Mom, relax, we're watching Bugs Bunny.”

So keep your cotton-picking hands off our favorite cottontail. In fact it was Bugs Bunny who first recorded using “cotton-picking” as a deprecatory term. Perhaps because someone who picked cotton worked the hardest job on the plantation.

Wisecracking rabbits aside, you just might want to try cotton picking yourself, but first you have to grow the cotton. Not just any cotton, but Black Cotton (Gossypium herbaceum Nigra). Black Cotton is true cotton, except it has dark purple to nearly black foliage. It blooms with dark-pink flowers that grow into purple cotton bolls that crack open to reveal the pure white cotton inside. The unopened bolls make a dramatic statement when added to flower arrangements,

Black Cotton only grows 24-30 inches high and 18-24 inches across, so it is fine grown in a pot indoors. This is an herbaceous perennial originally from the Levant, or sub-Saharan Africa, so it needs warm, sunny growing conditions to produce cotton. Choose a bright, sunny window for it.

Black Cotton is a heavy feeder, meaning it needs lots of fertilizer. Apply a liquid plant fertilizer that’s high in potash (potassium) such as tomato fertilizer or rose formula fertilizer. Fertilizer is marked with a three-number fertilizer grade starting with NPK, with N standing for nitrogen, P for phosphorous and the last letter, K, for potassium or potash. So look for a fertilizer with a higher third number such as NPK 5-5-10, which will contain 10 percent potassium.

You can find Black Cotton plants from online specialty nurseries or order from your local garden center. You can even grow Black Cotton from seeds. Sow three seeds an inch deep in each four-inch peat pot filled with rich potting soil. Set the peat pots where they will get direct sunshine and keep them warm, above 65 degrees F. A heat mat works great.

After the seeds germinate, thin to the strongest single seedling in each pot. Go easy on the water, as too much water will kill Black Cotton. Only water enough to soak the roots, letting the top layer of soil dry out between waterings. After a few weeks, your seedling will be ready to transplant, peat pot and all, into a 12-inch-diameter pot. Your plants should bloom in about 50 days. You can set your Black Cotton plant outdoors during the summer. Be sure to bring it back in before temperatures drop below 65 degrees F in the fall.

Cotton is self-pollinating so even a single plant should produce cotton bolls. After the flowers die, the cotton boll develops. As it ripens, it cracks open to reveal the fluffy white cotton. Just grab the cotton fibers between your forefinger and thumb, and twist gently to pull them out. As Bugs Bunny might say, put on the Chopin; you are now a cotton-picking gardener.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.