Old-fashioned cockscomb (Celosia argentea var. cristata) is a plant that our grandmothers (and great grandmothers) knew well. It is easy to grow and self-seeds for a return show the next year. Most gardeners grow it as an annual, but it is actually a tender, sub-tropical perennial with origins in India and Burma. It thrives in sunny locations and the unusual flower heads last until frost.
The tiny, black seeds can be sown in the garden after danger of frost has past. It is a good idea to mix the seeds with a bit of sand or cornmeal to prevent crowding of the seedlings. Even if the seedlings sprout in crowded conditions, they can be successfully lifted and transplanted so that they are eight to ten inches apart.
If you want an earlier start, or want to try your hand at starting plants indoors, they can be planted under lights four to six weeks before last frost. Use a toothpick to slide one or two seeds on the soil surface of each container. Press them lightly into the mix. You do not have to cover the seeds, but if you do, only the thinnest layer of soil is necessary. Cockscomb seeds are inexpensive and are often found on the bargain racks at the local big box store. These racks are often filled with older, time-tested varieties of flowers and vegetables and new gardeners can try many different things for pocket change.
Cockscombs make excellent bedding plants and will also do ok living in containers, although the container plants will generally be smaller, due to confinement. The larger the container, the more robust the cockscombs will be. I enjoy them in my Gronomics elevated beds. They grow well and are a bright spot near my back door.
The cristata (meaning ‘crested') species do not need dead-heading. The large and often grotesque flower heads continue to enlarge throughout the summer, often reaching over a foot across by fall. They are attractive to butterflies and other insects that enjoy feeding on nectar and pollen, although I've rarely seen bees on them. Mixed packages of seeds produce plants with crests in shades of red, pink, magenta, yellow, cream and salmon. There are also varieties with maroon leaves.
As they mature, small black seeds will start to develop along the lower part of the flowers. They will eventually drop in to the soil and lay dormant until the next spring. If you are the type of gardener that can't abide surprises, these plants may not be for you. They produce vast amounts of seeds and the babies will sprout in unusual spots each spring. I mow them over, pull them or relocate them...and am grateful for the free plants! If you want to save the seeds, just cut the crests and turn them upside-down in a paper bag each fall. Each head will produce several hundred seed and while you can separate the seeds by color, if they have been grown close to each other, chances are, you'll get several colors from one plant.
These are easy to grow plants and new gardeners should have a high success rate with this old-fashioned beauty,while seasoned gardeners have a dependable plant that leaves them free to concentrate on more challenging beauties.