In the search for the ultimate "low maintenance" flowering garden annual, celosia is hard to beat. After all, it is a member of what commonly is known as the pigweed family. Its ability to thrive in conditions that make summers in the Midwest more or less miserable for humans undoubtedly factored heavily into it being named the 2023 "Annual Flower of the Year" by the National Garden Bureau. At last, celosia is getting the recognition it deserves.
Celosia has been grown in North America since the 18th century. Thomas Jefferson was said to have planted seeds of "cockscomb, a flower like the prince's feather" at Monticello in 1767. Although celosia's exact origin is uncertain, speculation leans toward to tropical America, Africa, and India. Grown in the United States as an annual, it is a tender perennial in zones 10 to 12. Not only have these plants been grown for their beauty in the garden, but they are also used as food in many places around the world. Celosia argentea, also known as Lagos spinach, is used for its highly nutritious green leaves and young shoots. It is steamed or used in soups or stews in Indonesian, Indian and African cuisine.
Celosia is a genus in the Amaranthaceae (Amaranth or pigweed) plant family that is comprised of 45 different species. Its name is derived from the Greek word kḗleos, which means "burning." The latter refers to the flame-like look of the inflorescences of certain types of celosias. Celosia argentea is the most import ornamental species of the genus. Cultivars of C. argentea are grouped into three different categories or types according to flower morphology. They include cristata, plumosa, and spicata.
Cristata types: (Celosia argentea var. cristata, or Celosia cristata). Also known as cockscomb, plants in this group bear uniquely fan-shaped flowers that consist of fasciated, convoluted spikes. They can range anywhere from 6" to 36" tall, depending on the cultivar. Flower size is proportional to plant height. Foliage color is most often green, although cultivars with burgundy foliage are available.
Plumosa types: (Celosia argentea var. plumosa, or Celosia plumosa). Commonly called feather celosia, or plumed celosia, plants in this group range in size from 8" to 24" tall depending on the cultivar. The flowers, which resemble tiny Christmas trees, come in colors that are bold, bright, and soft to the touch. Similar to the cristata types, foliage can be green or burgundy in color.
Spicata types: (Celosia argentea var. spicata, or Celosia spicata). Also known as silver cockscomb, or wheat celosia, plants in this group bear cylindrical flower spikes somewhat reminiscent of wheat, hence the common name. Cultivars in this category can range in height from 5"-24."
In all cases, the inflorescence is a terminal spike produced just above the foliage. Hundreds of small florets densely pack each spike which matures from the bottom up. Flower colors are quite vivid and include red, yellow, gold, pink, purple, and bi-colored. Florets on the spikes develop a metallic sheen on the calyxes that persists after the flowers fade. Since inflorescence color does not come from the corolla, celosia flower spikes lend themselves well to drying for use in floral arrangements.
Celosias like a warm sunny spot (six to eight hours direct sun) in the garden. The soil should be well drained with a pH of 6.0 to 6.5. Heavy soils can be improved by incorporating about four inches of well-decomposed organic matter before planting. Delay planting until the soil has warmed to at least 55°F or above, and the danger of frost has passed.
Although celosias can be seeded directly in the garden, most often they are established as started plants purchased at a greenhouse or garden center. Alternatively, homeowners can start their own transplants from seeds sown indoors about six to eight weeks before the frost-free date for their area. Artificial lighting or a well-lit setting in the home is needed to produce quality transplants.
After planting outdoors, plants should be fertilized monthly with a general-purpose fertilizer with equal amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium (e.g., 12-12-12). Stake taller varieties to prevent them from falling over. Removing the old blooms will help to promote the production of new flowers. Celosias appreciate receiving adequate water but suffer when overwatered. Allow the top several inches of soil to dry between waterings.
As low-maintenance plants, celosias have few pest problems and are not favored by deer. Watch for spider mite infestation during the heat of summer. Typical symptoms include brownish-bronze foliage that becomes dry and brittle. Powdery mildew is one of the few diseases that plague celosias and normally is less of a problem after temperatures warm.
As mentioned earlier, celosia flowers are easy to dry. Just tie the stems in a bundle and hang upside down is a dry location with good air circulation for about two weeks. Additionally, they can be marketed as fresh cut flowers at farmers' markets or other local outlets. This combination of uses causes Celosia to be a very versatile genus in the specialty cut flower industry whose full market potential has yet to be realized.
Over the past several decades, a number of celosia cultivars have won the coveted All-American Selection award and are good candidates for annual gardens. They include:
- 'Flamma Orange,' a bright orange plumosa type with compact growth habit.
- 'Kelos® Candela Pink,' a very free-blooming pink spicata type with candle-like spikes.
- 'Asian Garden,' a spicata type with branching growth habit and burgundy-pink spikes.
- 'Fresh Look' series, available in gold, yellow or red this plumosa type series is very free-blooming and bear spikes that do not turn brown with age.
- 'Prestige Scarlet,' a compact, free-blooming cristata type with scarlet-red flowers.
- 'Castle Pink,' a plumosa type with consistent performance and strong weather tolerance.
- 'New Look,' a plumosa type with burgundy foliage and a bushy, basal-branching growth habit. It bears large plumes that are glowing deep red in color on 10 to 12-inch plants.
Acknowledgement: Adapted from an article by the National Garden Bureau