If you’re old enough to remember, Cousin Itt was a character on the 1960s TV series “The Addams Family” (and its various remakes). Cousin Itt’s face and body were completely obscured by an uncanny mane of hair that grew all the way down to the ground.
Two plants dubbed ‘Cousin Itt’ have tresses that, more like those of an Old English Sheepdog than those of the off-putting television Itt, impart a soft and cuddly look to these botanical curiosities. Both plants are highly drought tolerant, low-growing woody perennials and, if you are thinking of ripping out your lawn, you might want to consider one of them as an alternative to filling up that space.
No, these Cousin Itts are not meant to be walked upon, but they will create a wavy, welcoming expanse where grass once grew. The difference will especially be felt in their irrigation requirement since, once either Cousin Itt takes over, it will need no more than a soaking every two weeks, if even that.
Both Cousin Itts come from Australia. One grew from a seed that came from a conventional river wattle (Acacia cognata), a weeping tree that reaches a height of around 30 feet. Australia is the habitat of a number of attractive small to medium-sized trees, many of them weeping, known as wattles, all belonging to the Acacia genus. The word “wattle” refers to the panels made of acacia wood that served as walls for hurriedly constructed huts built by settlers of Australia in the early 1800s.
The second Cousin Itt is known as prostrate swamp oak (Casuarina glauca var. Cousin Itt). Its habitat is swampy and its sawn wood has the appearance of oak. It grows to a height of less than a foot but may spread as much as eight feet, and can grow in any soil type. This Cousin Itt has never been observed flowering but, nevertheless, has a penchant for mounding and expansive horizontal growth.
One concern you will not have with either Cousin Itt is fertilization. Both are provided with nitrate fertilizer by nitrogen-fixing bacteria that live in nodules on their roots. Acacias are legumes like peas, beans, and alfalfa and they benefit from the same Rhizobium bacteria that live in symbiosis with those crops. Casuarina is not a legume but another bacteria known as Frankia performs the same nitrogen-fixing function for Casuarinas as Rhizobium does for legumes. In any case, phosphorus fertilizer should not be applied to the Acacia Cousin Itt since phosphorus is toxic to certain Acacias; in the same manner, it is toxic to other Australian natives such as Banksia, Grevillea, and Hakea species.
Whereas the wattle Cousin Itt is a light to emerald green, the swamp oak Cousin Itt is a lime to deep sea green. It would be interesting to combine the two of them with their contrasting colors in a slope planting – for which both are eminently suitable due to their trailing habit of growth. Each of them will also make a fine container specimen and would tumble nicely over a block wall or out of a hanging basket. The leaves of wattle Cousin Itt are thin but densely packed, completely obscuring the plant’s stems, while swamp oak leaves look more like elongated pine needles which are actually twiggy growth known as cladodes, hiding stems as well. Both Cousin Itts can handle full sun to shady exposures and will survive a frost just fine.
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In 2007, the ghost chili pepper was rated the hottest pepper in the world. In 2013, it was superseded by the Carolina reaper, which then claimed the title of the world’s hottest pepper. Each shows a crinkly red skin when ripe. A reader who is trying to grow both of these peppers in containers wrote to express frustration with seeing lots of flowers but few peppers.
I think the problem may have to do with the fertilizer being used, which is a 15-30-15 formulation. These three numbers represent the percentages of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, respectively, that are present in the product. Nitrogen is primarily responsible for leaf growth, phosphorus for root growth, and potassium for fruit growth. The fertilizer being used is lopsided in favor of flower formation at the expense of the fruit or, in this case, peppers which, botanically speaking, are a fruit. I recommend switching to a 9-15-30 formulation or a product whose ratio of nitrogen to phosphorus to potassium is roughly 3:5:10.
Pepper plants self-pollinate, but can be assisted by insects and wind so if these are missing it would be advisable to shake the plants, ideally at midday when anthers are primed to expel the pollen grains inside them. This will ensure that pollen grains are released so they can land on the stigmas or female flower parts, grow pollen tubes and probe the ova at the base of the flower styles, leading to fertilization, seed development, and transformation of ovaries into peppers. The reader is assisting pollination by dabbing a small paint brush with pollen and applying it to the female flower parts. However, this must be done gently or pollen and/or stigmas could be damaged. A mild shaking is sufficient to make pollination happen.
Have you had success growing peppers, chili or bell, in containers? If so, please share with readers of this column how you did it.
California native plant of the week
Island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii): Ever since being introduced to the island bush poppy (Dendromecon harfordii), I have not yet found a plant to which it could be remotely compared. Its foliage is green to blue-green to blue-gray, depending on light exposure, but its flowers are always an unmistakably bright, buttery yellow. Island bush poppy, endemic to the Channel Islands, is a robust shrub that will grow 12 feet tall and wide. In our interior valleys, in the manner of California lilac (Ceanothus spp.) and manzanita (Arctostaphylos spp.), it will perform best in half-day sun. Island bush poppy is a saintly plant, giving much without asking for anything in return. Some people refer to poppies as anti-depressant plants since it is impossible to look at the flowers of any poppy species without breaking into a smile. Island bush poppy blooms mostly in spring and summer but flowers may open at any time throughout the year.
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