By Tommy Clarkson from the January 2019 Edition
Cockscomb Celosia cristata
Also known as Wool Flower, Brain Celosia, Red Fox or Velvet Flower
(Yesterday, while stepping away from my regular morning workout as a result of over-actively pushing my aging body and cracking a rib I was walking through an area in which I’d not trod before, when I heard a soft, plaintive cry, “Oh, kind sir, please rescue me from this weedy existence and allow me to realize my full and beauteous potential.” [Fluently speaking and understanding several dialects of the array of plant languages I, of course, immediately, recognized its accent to be that of the Amaranthaceae family.] Thus is the manner, course and cause of how this beauty came to be a part of the Ola Brisa Gardens family. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!) In actuality, Celosia cristata happily grows throughout Mexico, northern South America, the West Indies and tropical Africa, as well as Southeast Asia. While, in cooler climes, Cockscombs are considered tender perennials and grown as annuals, here they can become perennials producing dense undulating inflorescences. In that these resemble the red combs on the heads of roosters, “Well duh hence comes their common name.
While our new resident is a stunning red, its kin range from orange, yellow and gold to purple, pink and white. (Though, I must admit to not having seen all of these colors personally.) Beyond the instant gratification of their attractiveness in the here and now as they boisterously bloom in your garden, or cut and are appreciated in a vase for five days to two weeks, these large flowers can also be dried, used in floral arrangements and enjoyed for a more protracted period.
It called to me “Please rescue me from this weedy existence and allow me to realize my full and beauteous potential.”
As to the family Amaranthaceae all of which answer to the name of Cockscomb there are around sixty different species. Three forms of the Celosia species were first introduced into England, from Asia, in 1570. In 1767, Thomas Jefferson recorded that he’d grown Cockscomb at Shadwell, his boyhood home. In fact, it was a popular garden plant in America commencing in the early half of the 1700s.
And, with a keen eye to etymology, Celosia comes from the Greek word kelos which means “burned.” I’d assume that this alludes to the appearance of the brightly colored flowers for which some of this species are renowned. Celosia cristata are believed to have developed from Celosia argentea, which while thought to be native to India is common in the wilds of China.
Now, about those intriguing leaves . . .
That’s a rather nice bridge to now discuss the physical makeup of the flowers of the Cockscomb! Their rather oval leaves are arranged alternately along the stem and are, generally, borne on a reddish petiole (which we often call, simply, its leafstalk). Depending on the variety, they can grow to 9–32 inches (22.86–81.28 cm) in height. That stunning Cockscomb “flower” is actually comprised of colorful, densely arranged bracts which will, ultimately, produce copious amounts of seeds.
Obviously a full sun lover, they also like moist (but definitely not sustained wetness), well-draining soil. Around here, during the “dry times” one should water them regularly and give ‘em a snack of general purpose fertilizer once or twice a month. To give them a little nudge during the hot weather, I’d suggest that you spray their foliage with a diluted liquid fertilizer solution.
They also are most appreciative of being mulched. They have no serious insect or disease problems, but are susceptible to root rot (Remember that earlier “well-draining soil” counsel?) and, possibly, fungal leaf spot diseases. Then there’s this one last tidbit in Cockscomb growing: pinching back the first bloom of its flowers can promote branching and, hence, a more abundant display of flowers on your cockscomb plant(s).
More than a pretty face, young plants can be used as a garnish on salads or placed atop a steak. As a great source of protein, vitamins A and C, iron, calcium and phosphorus, its flavor is somewhat like spinach, with a basil-like texture. (One wonders – perhaps added to scrambled eggs?)
It is a commonly grown vegetable throughout Africa where its leaves, tender stems and young flowers are combined with other vegetables for soups and stews, as well as boiled or steamed as side dishes to meat and poultry. In fact, I’ve seen it touted
It’s now happily sited here with a diverse array of other tropical botanical fellows!
at “the world’s most beautiful vegetable” and, in point of fact, it’s one of the leading leafy green vegetables in Nigeria, where it is known as soko yokoto. This means, “make husbands fat and happy.”
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Tommy Clarkson is a bit of a renaissance man. He’s lived and worked in locales as disparate as the 1.2 square mile island of Kwajalein to war-torn Iraq, from aboard he and Patty’s boat berthed out of Sea Bright, NJ to Thailand, Germany, Hawaii and Viet Nam; He’s taught classes and courses on creative writing and mass communications from the elementary grades to graduate level; He’s spoken to a wide array of meetings, conferences and assemblages on topics as varied as Buddhism, strategic marketing and tropical plants; In the latter category he and Patty’s recently book, “The Civilized Jungle” – written for the lay gardener – has been heralded as “the best tropical plant book in the last ten years”; And, according to Trip Advisor, their spectacular tropical creation – Ola Brisa Gardens – is the “Number One Tour destination in Manzanillo”.