Many gardeners struggle with plants and gardens that are difficult to maintain and although it is always fun to try your hand at something exotic, smart gardeners know there needs to be a balance. New gardeners don't know what to choose and experienced gardeners often bite off more than they can chew. Everyone needs low-maintenance plants that put on a great show for very little effort and the celosias are a wonderful choice. They come in an assortment of forms and colors and these plants only ask for a sunny spot and well-drained soil. There are a number of common names we know them by, woolflowers and cockscombs are just a couple of the more descriptive ones and the Swahili know them as mfungu.
Celosias are members of the vast Amaranthaceae family that is spread throughout the globe and while they are perennial in frost-free regions, most people grow them as annuals. Rumored to have originated in Africa, but been in cultivation for eons, they are truly global plants. The ancient Greeks knew them and gave them the name we know them by. Derived from the Greek keleos, which means 'burning', the blossoms often look like little flames atop a bed of greenery and while they are attractive and ornamental, celosias were first used as a food. They are a fast-growing plant that many peoples used as a potherb and stirfry vegetable. The leaves have approximately the same nutritive value as spinach, but can withstand much higher growing temperatures. If you choose to sample this plant in your kitchen, remember that young leaves harvested before the plants bloom will be the tastiest. The tiny seeds can be used much like quinoa (they are cousins, after all) so add them to soups and breads, but remember to soak and rinse them as they contain the soapy-tasting saponins. The plants have been eaten in Africa, India and Asia for almost as long as we've had a recorded history and are still being used today in some of the poorer regions of the world.
This versatile plant is also a part of the herbal pharmacy with a number of treatments for various ailments. Some of these treatments have a valid medical leg to stand on, while others are pure hogwash. The leaves are antibacterial and when crushed, make an excellent poultice for cuts, wounds and insect bites. Tea made from the roots is astringent and hemostatic which is useful in controlling things like ulcers, hemorrhoids and other bleeding disorders. The crushed seeds are said to help with chest congestion, however, they do dilate the pupils and those with glaucoma and other eye disorders should avoid them. Using celosia to treat snakebites or STDs has no medical validity. And of course, as with all herbal medicine, do not try to diagnose or treat yourself. Many plants contain compounds that cause harmful interactions with prescription medicines and some people are sensitive or allergic to them too.
There are several forms of celosia, the little flame shaped blooms are the genus plumosa, the larger, rounded forms are the genus cristata and I've grown these in containers and in flowerbeds for many years. The blooms are long-lasting and attract butterflies and other pollinators. The large blooms make a great statement in the garden and they all reseeds quite happily. I've found new seedlings just about everywhere in the spring, however they transplant quite well and it is easy to move the stragglers to a better location.
Start seeds indoors under lights about 6 weeks before your last frost, or direct seed them as soon as threat of frost is over. I usually just direct seed mine, they grow quite quickly and have a long bloom season here in Kentucky without bothering with an early start. As the plants get their second or third set of true leaves, pinch them back in the growing points. You may have to wait a couple of weeks more for blooms, but your plants will be bushier and produce more flowers. Plant in full sun in moderately rich, well drained soil. Even though celosia can withstand a bit of drought, your best show will happen when they have plenty of sun and water. I even like to give mine a layer of mulch to hold the moisture in the ground and to keep it cool. The plumosas make great, long lasting cut flowers and florists often use them. The cristatas are an interesting conversation piece and I often have comments about the ones that I have in my planters at my back door. They last a long time and I can leave them in place when I change the summer display to an autumn one with mums and kale. Saving seeds is easy. Just wait until you see the little black seeds emerge here and there, cut the blossom and hang it upside down in a paper bag. Chances are, you'll have a variation in the bloom colors you see the next year, but that is just part of the fun for me. If you choose to purchase seeds or transplants, they are inexpensive and usually available both at big box stores and garden centers, so make plans for next spring to include some in your gardens.