The National Garden Bureau Celebrates 2006 As The Year Of The Celosia
”Celosias are one of the most eye-catching annuals to grow in the garden”, says Lin Diacont, President of the Virginia Green Industry Council. 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 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.
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.
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. Sprits 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.
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' (MS 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.
Information for this article was obtained from The National Garden Bureau. The National Garden Bureau is a non-profit organization and recognizes the seed company members that generously donate funds for this educational program.
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