Celosias are one of the most eye-catching annuals to grow in the garden. Technically speaking, however, they are tender annuals, as they are perennial in Zones 10 to 12. The three types of celosia are easily distinguishable from each other. They are plumes, crests, or spikes; simply described as plumes of jewel-colored feathers, wrinkly-looking knobs, or elongated cones. No matter which celosia you choose to grow, the flower colors are not for the faint of heart; their vivid hues practically glow, lighting up the garden even on the rainiest summer days. Most commonly seen are dazzling red, yellow, cream, orange, rose, deep magenta, and pink. Less commonly seen are bicolors. In addition to their eye-catching magnificence in the garden, taller varieties are excellent as cut flowers—both fresh and dried. Celosia can range in size from dwarf varieties that only grow four to six inches high to vigorous types over three feet tall.
Celosias are easy to grow from seed, and young plants are readily available at nurseries, garden centers, and stores in spring. Versatile, celosias grow in most any type of soil—even heavy clay—as long as they are in full sun. With summer weather as unpredictable as it has been in recent years, you can count on celosia to come through heat and drought unscathed.
Keep an eye out for celosias as you drive or walk around the community. Public gardens, parks, the highway department, malls, and local merchants take advantage of the low-maintenance, high-impact aspects of celosias. If they can grow so successfully with so little attention, imagine what a show they can make in the hands of someone who loves plants and has an artistic eye and doesn’t grow them in the typical soldierly rows.
The exact geographic origins of celosia in the wild are unknown, although speculations include the dry slopes of Africa and India as well as dry stony regions of both North and South America. Wherever they first came from, we have been growing and enjoying them in North America since the 18th century. Although reportedly used by Chinese herbalists to stop bleeding, treat diseases of the blood, and infections of the urinary tract, there are no references to its use in any western herbals—modern or centuries old, European or Native American.
The name is derived from the Greek and translates to “burning,” aptly describing the look of celosias—especially the yellow, red, and orange plumed varieties— which bear a resemblance to licks of flames erupting from the stems.Before breeding resulted in larger blooms, the crested celosia, with its small, wavy, fanlike flowers, looked very much like rooster’s red combs—hence the popular common name of cockscomb.
In the Victorian language of flowers, celosias signified humor, warmth, and silliness. Goes to show how little humor they must have had in their lives. Yet, in their way, Victorians were on the right track. Even today, if you watch as folks, especially children, walk by a planting of celosia, you will likely see a grin. Their quirky flowers do beg for attention. Touch the flowers; they are amazingly soft. The cockscomb or cristata types feel like velvet on the sides of the spike. Celosia plumosa are actually tens of smaller feathery-like spikes produced in a Christmas tree-like arrangement. These feather-like plumes are almost indestructible. They remain the same shape and texture even during severe storms. Stand in the rain and Celosia plumosa look exactly the same as they do shining in the sunlight.
Celosias belong to the amaranth family, Amaranthaceae. Look at the plumed varieties and the resemblance to Joseph’s coat amaranth is apparent. There are about 60 species of annual or perennial celosia. The three common forms of celosia belong to only two different species, Celosia argentea (aka cristata L.) and Celosia spicata.
Celosia argentea is comprised of two groups. Plumed celosia belongs to the Plumosa group, which bears fluffy, feathery heads composed of hundreds of tiny flowers. This group includes many All-America Selections Winners: ‘Fresh Look Red’ and its sister ‘Fresh Look Yellow’ (2004; both bear brilliant ten-inch-high feathers on 12- to 16-inch plants, producing new blooms around the old ones all summer—without deadheading), ‘Apricot Brandy’ (1981; apricot-orange plumes; 20-inch plant). ‘New Look’ won an AAS Award in 1988 due to the unique dark bronze foliage.
To many, the Cristata group, best known today as crested celosia or cockscomb, is suggestive of a highly colored brain—no gray matter there, just brilliant hues. Some varieties are wider than others; the narrow ones definitely are reminiscent of a rooster’s comb. The “crenellations” of Bombay mix (3 to 4 feet tall with 18-inch flower heads in 5 colors: purple, deep red, wine red, gold, and yellow gold) are very narrow and look like folds of elegant French ribbon—darker on the outside, lighter colored inside.
C. spicata, spiked cockscomb, is also known as wheat celosia for its narrow, spiky flower heads, reminiscent of heads of wheat. Unlike C. argentea, spiked cockscombs produce numerous flowers, with an almost shrubby look, in more muted colors. 'Flamingo Feather' is 3 to 4 feet tall with graceful spikes of rosy pink flowers and ‘Glowing Spears Mix’ makes a colorful—deep wine, pink, and white—24- to 30-inch high hedge. Twelve-inch tall ‘Kosmo Purple Red’ bears numerous narrow wine-red heads (that start out feathery and mature to fanlike cockscombs) beautifully set off by the handsome foliage—bright green, washed with purple.
HOW TO GROW FROM SEED
Celosias are warm weather plants and take about 90 days to flower after planting. Like beans, they are not happy unless the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In cold winter areas, get a jump-start on the season by starting the seeds indoors four to six weeks before the last frost date. Celosias do not like to have their roots disturbed, so sow three or four seeds 1/4-inch deep in lightly moistened, sterile seed-starting mix in earth-friendly peat pots. Cover the pots with plastic wrap and put in a warm (70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit) place until the seeds germinate—10 to 15 days. Remove the plastic daily to let the plants breathe. Spritz with room temperature (not ice-cold out of the faucet) water to keep the potting mix uniformly lightly moist.
Once the seeds have germinated, move the plants into the light. A sunny south facing window will do, but fluorescent lights are best. As the plants grow, move the lights so they remain about six inches above the tops of the plants. When the plants have two sets of true leaves (not the initial seed or cotyledon leaves), pinch out all but the strongest looking plant.
When the nighttime temperatures are above 55 degrees Fahrenheit, start hardening off the plants. Gradually introduce them to the outdoors, leaving them outside—in a protected area—for part of each day. Start out with four hours and increase the time outdoors by two hours each day. By the eighth day, they should be able to remain out overnight.
Unless you plan to grow celosias in a cutting garden, avoid planting them in soldierly rows. Tear or cut off any part of the peat pot that is above the level of the potting mix. Plant the pot so the peat pot is completely covered with garden soil. Follow the directions on the seed packet for spacing the plants, ten inches apart for small varieties—16 inches for taller ones—is ample space for air circulation around the plants. Planted too closely, the plants may be stunted, with poor growth and smaller flowers. Water well.
In areas with longer summers, sow the seeds directly in the garden after all danger of frost has passed. Follow the directions on the seed packet for spacing. For best germination, wait until the soil temperature is at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Sow the seeds 1/2-inch deep and cover loosely with soil. Keep the soil lightly moist until the seeds germinate. Covering loosely with Reemay® or other spun polyfiber fabric can help maintain soil moisture. Remove fabric immediately after germination. Once the plants have two sets of true leaves, thin the seedlings to the recommended spacing on the seed packet, leaving the largest and strongest plants.
HOW TO GROW FROM PURCHASED PLANTS
Many celosias are available at nurseries, garden centers, and home stores in 4- to 6- plant cell packs. Purchase larger cell packs because they hold more soil. When purchasing the plants, look underneath the cell pack for any signs of roots emerging from the drainage holes. Avoid such packs, as the plants are likely root-bound and stressed. Check the roots, if possible, to see how tight they are in the cell. Look for healthy, well-colored leaves; examine them—top and bottom—for any signs of insects. Choose packs with vigorous plants growing in all cells, in soil that is not dried out.
Gently push up from the bottom of the cell pack to remove the plant; do not pull it out by the stem. If the roots are all matted together, make a vertical cut, one-quarter inch deep, through the root ball to encourage new root growth. Otherwise, gently loosen the soil around the roots. Set the plant in the ground at the same level it was growing in the cell pack. Water well. Set the plants 10 to 12 inches apart, or as directed on the plant tag.
Even though celosias will grow in poor, rocky or sandy soil, they will thrive in rich, well-drained garden soil.
GROWING ON IN THE GARDEN & GROWING IN CONTAINERS
Although the wheat celosias are almost bushy in appearance with numerous flowers, most plumed and crested celosias produce one large central flower and possibly several smaller flowers on side shoots. The tiny flower forms when the plant is small; as the plants grow, so does the flower. In the case of some of the large cockscombs, such as ‘Red Velvet’ that grows to 30 inches high with velvety crimson heads up to 10 inches across, the flowers grow so large that they make the plant top heavy, requiring staking. Otherwise, a heavy rain or wind can break the flower stem.
Celosias make beautiful container plantings—alone, or combined with other plants that like the same sunny growing conditions. Unless you grow a single plant in a container, plumes will be somewhat narrower than if they were planted in the ground. The key to a well-designed container is to include three plant forms: rounded, spiky, and frilly (or a plant that will spill over the rim of the pot and soften the edges). Plumed celosias fit the bill as spiky, and crested celosias as rounded. For containers, choose varieties that grow less than two feet tall, such as ‘Castle Pink’ (AAS 1990; plume; 12 to 16 inches tall; deep pink), ‘Prestige Scarlet’ (AAS 1997, crested; 12 inches; scarlet heads), ‘Coral Garden’ (crests look like coral reefs; 10 to 12 inches; mix of gold, burnt orange; deep cheery pink) or the newly introduced, ‘Ice Cream’ series.
GROWING CELOSIA INDOORS
Create a forest of color by growing plumed celosias in a pot. Sow the seeds thicker than you normally would (12 seeds for a 6- to 8-inch pot; 16 seeds for a 10- to 12-inch pot; thin to 8 and 12 seedlings, respectively). Within eight to ten weeks, the plants will be showing color. Since they are crowded in the pot, the plants will be more slender than they would in the garden, creating an illusion of a miniature woodland scene in its full glory of autumn color. Choose a low-growing variety (often called super dwarf) that comes in a color mix, such as ‘Kimono’ (cherry red, cream, orange, rose, salmon, scarlet, yellow, salmon pink) or ‘Kewpie’ (fiery red, deep orange, yellow), for the most Impressionistic “fall foliage.” Grow these containers indoors or out; indoors, make sure they get at least eight to ten hours of direct sunlight a day.
Celosia plumosa varieties are excellent houseplants. The potted plants will show color for a month or more under low light conditions. The new AAS Winners ‘Fresh Look Red’ and ‘Fresh Look Yellow’ have performed well as indoor houseplants and rival traditional “Mums” for fall indoor color.
FLOWERS FRESH OR DRIED
For all celosias, whether you want to use them as fresh or dried flowers, cut the flowers when they are fully developed. Cut the flowers early in the day, after the dew has dried. For dried arrangements, remove all the leaves from the stems and wrap a rubber band around six to eight stems and hang them upside down from a coat hanger in a dark, cool, dry, airy space for several weeks or until fully dried. They will last in dried arrangements for at least six months without losing any of their vibrancy. Crafters use celosia flowers to add vibrant color to dried wreaths and swags. They are amazing in holiday decorations—imagine a turkey with feathers of yellow and orange celosia plumes. Transform a piece of bamboo or even a plain stick into a magic wand by hot-gluing some celosia flowers at the end. The uses for dried celosia are limited only by your imagination.
For drying, grow several plants of different sizes so you end up with a range of flower lengths, widths, colors, and shapes for the most versatility of uses. Once you have the dried flowers in front of you, they may spark your imagination for a project you had never thought of before. A good variety might include: ‘Bombay Mix’, ‘Century Mix’ (AAS 1985; slightly narrow, 12-inch-long plumes in colors of red, rose, yellow, fire); ‘Chief Mix’ (large 4-to 7-inch flower heads resemble coral in colors of dark red, carmine, rose, gold, red and yellow bicolor, height 3 to 3½ feet); ‘Fireglow’ (AAS 1964; 8 by 6-1/2-inch, velvety cardinal red, round crests); ‘Flamingo Feather’ (wheat celosia; with light pink spikes). You can always cut a large flower down to make it look like a smaller flower.
POSSIBLE PESTS & DISEASES
The only problems that can befall celosias are mites, leaf spots, and stem rot. They are all easily preventable by eliminating the cause—wet soil and cool weather. To avoid this, grow celosias in well-drained soil and mulch with organic material or simply grow them in a raised bed. Wait to plant until all danger of frost has passed and the soil has warmed.
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