Amaranthaceae (amaranth family)
Zones: Warm season annual (all of the South)
Celosia comes from the Greek word kelos, meaning burned; apparently referring to the look of the flowers in some species. Come to think of it my entire garden in San Antonio looks pretty "kelos" this summer. In China it is called chi kuan ("cockscomb") where it is extensively cultivated. Most believe Celosia cristata developed from Celosia argentea which is listed as native to India but is common in the wild in China. Listed by Gerard in 1633 as Velvet Floures Gentle (Amaranthus pannicula incura holifera) and also known by the names of purple amaranth, floramor, and flower gentle, cockscomb has been grown in American gardens since the eighteenth century.
Three forms were introduced into England from Asia in 1570. In 1709, John Lawson noted "Prince's Feather very large and beautiful" in the gardens of Carolina. The Perry letters of 1739 note it in Virginia, and William Beverly ordered seeds of "Amer. Coxcomb." In 1760, "Indian Branching cockscombs" were listed for sale in Boston while Thomas Jefferson sowed seeds of cockscomb on April 2, 1767 at Monticello.
There are two types of cockscomb, the crested and the plumed. My favorite has always been the crested or fasciated type; maybe because of the long line of cockfighters in my family. Cockscomb can be red, pink, orange, yellow, or variegated. There are attractive red leafed varieties as well. Although there are many dwarf cultivars available today, the original types were fairly tall plants. The particular cockscomb I grow has been seen in numerous gardens throughout the South and was collected in the older section of San Antonio where in ENJOYING AMERICA'S GARDENS (1958) Joan Parny Dutton says "I looked around (San Antonio) at the pink and mauve thunbergia, the amaranthus or cockscombe in wide variety." Indeed Fanick's Nursery, a third generation family nursery in San Antonio was once known for their production of cockscomb seed for seed companies and the introduction of new varieties.
Cockscomb requires full sun and adequate moisture. The old form I grow has dark rose-red combs and reaches around 3 feet tall while producing multiple side stalks. The leaves and stems also have a reddish tinge especially in bright light. Due to the long stiff stems it makes an excellent fresh as well as a dried cutflower.
Apparently the branching type has been in and out of favor. Joseph Breck in THE FLOWER GARDEN (1851) says..."There are the tall and the dwarf varieties, and some that are somewhat branching; but these last should be rejected." He goes on to tell how to produce a huge comb on a short plant by artificial means of culture. However an article in FLORAL MAGAZINE was quoted by James Veitch in his HORTUS VEITCHII (1906) where Thomas More Esq. the editor (FLORAL MAGAZINE) wrote: "It is not improbable the more branched...forms, if carefully selected might in time yield a plumy crimson variety analogous to the golden one we already posses; and this is the result at which growers should aim, rather than to obtain large expanded combs which take away from the elegant aspect of the plant."
Cockscomb is easily propagated from seed collected in the fall and sown in late spring. It thrives with full sun in a well drained soil. It can almost become a weed, but is very easy to pull. Like purslane and perilla, if you're going to have weeds, they might as well be pretty ones.