How to Plant, Grow, and Care For Cockscomb Flowers
Are you thinking of adding some colorful flowers to your garden, and considering Cockscomb as a potential option? Growing Celosia Cristata can be challenging without the proper knowledge and resources. There are several important factors to consider before adding them to your home garden. In this article, Garden and Flower expert Taylor Sievers walks through all the steps to properly plant, grow, and care for Cockscomb.
Nothing proves more cheerful than a punch of color in the landscape. Pack vivid color in with a funky, interesting shape and you’ve got celosia! These enthralling plants looked like they’ve stepped straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, not to mention they provide long-lasting color into the Fall and an interesting conversation piece in the home garden! In the Victorian language of flowers, celosia was meant to signify humor, warmth, and silliness, and if you’ve seen these plants then you understand why!
There are three distinct shapes to the flower-heads of celosia that make up two different species in the Celosia genus, C. argentea and C. plumosa. The Celosia argentea species contains the cristata and plumosa varieties, while Celosia spicata houses the “wheat” varieties. Cristata varieties (often called cockscomb) have fuzzy crests that are either fan-shaped or resemble a brain or coral.
These come in many colors like orange, green, red, burgundy, rose, yellow, and even variegated (a mix of yellow and rose). Plumosa varieties look like feathery flames and come in all sorts of vibrant colors. Lastly, the spicata species resemble wheat stalks in shape with colors of rose, purple, salmon, orange, and creamy yellow.
Not only are the flowers multi-colored, but the leaves can range from bright green to deep reddish-purple, depending on the variety. Because of their range in color and their stellar resistance to pests and disease, these plants are great in the landscape, in a pot, as a cut flower, and even in a dried flower arrangement or wreath come the holiday season! They are easy to grow and prolific self-seeders that can tolerate a garden that’s a little on the drier side. Celosia is an excellent plant to grow for the beginning gardener!
Argentea (var. cristata) or spicata
Africa or India
Tolerates Drier Soil
Marigolds, Zinnias, Sunflowers
Don’t Plant With
Cold Hardy Plants
8 inches – 4 feet
Dampening off of Seeds
The origins of celosia is unknown, but it is suspected that the plants originated from the dry slopes of Africa or India. It has also been suggested that these plants may have originated in the dry, stony regions of North and South America. Regardless, Celosia cristata was noted to have first come to the United States from Switzerland in 1676. Other reports indicate that celosia species became popular in U.S. gardens in the 18th century.
The name ‘celosia’ is derived from the Greek word ‘kelos,’ which is said to translate to ‘burned’ or ‘burning,’ an apt name for a plant with colorful, flame-like inflorescences.
Reportedly, Chinese herbalists used parts of the celosia plant to treat certain blood diseases, urinary tract infections, and more, but there has been no such use of this plant in Western medicine. However, the leaves of this plant are edible and are said to have a spinach-like flavor that is more bitter after the plant has flowered.
The wavy or brain-like appearance of the crested celosias is reminiscent of a rooster’s comb, hence the name ‘cockscomb’ for the crested varieties of celosia. In other areas, celosia species are known as ‘woolflowers.’
Celosia species are primarily used in the landscape and in the cut flower industry. The plants are tender annuals that love the heat! They dislike being planted when the soil temperature is below 60 degrees F.
These plants require full sun (8+ hours of daylight) to grow properly and are not particular about soils, though a rich, moist, well-draining soil is the most ideal for this plant. Be sure not to overwater, as these plants can tolerate dry soils much better than others!
Similar to Gloxinia, and Zinnias, Celosia plants are very easy to start from seed! In fact, they will readily self-seed if left in the garden, and next year you’ll have many more plants to enjoy. The seed is very tiny. As a rule of thumb, you should plant seeds as deep as they are wide, but since celosia seed is so tiny, they should not be buried more than ¼” deep. I like to surface sow my celosia that I start indoors!
If you would like to start your celosia seeds indoors, plan on starting your seeds as early as 6 to 8 weeks before your estimated last frost. Sow a few seeds per cell or pot on the surface and gently press into your seed-starting mix. You can dust with vermiculite and keep the soil moist until you see the seeds start to sprout.
If you’re afraid that you might sow too many seeds per cell, try using a toothpick as a dibble to sow your seeds. This method works well for other small-seeded annuals, like amaranth or snapdragons. Wet the end of a toothpick and touch the moist toothpick to one of the seeds. The seed will stick to the end of the toothpick and then you can gently touch it to the surface of your moist seed-starting mix or potting soil. Make sure to dip your toothpick periodically in water to keep it moist so that the seed will adhere to your makeshift dibble.
Because you are surface sowing, it is important that you keep the surface moist. Bottom water your seed-starting tray and/or mist gently to keep the seed-starting mix moist. You can cover your newly sown seeds with plastic wrap or a clear plastic dome to keep the humidity up until you have at least 50% germination.
Celosia seedlings are prone to dampening off (wilting and death of seedlings), so make sure to let the media dry out a little between waterings.
To direct sow, make sure that your soil is at least 60 degrees F and any chance of frost has passed. You can broadcast onto the soil surface and cover with a very light layer of straw to retain moisture or gently rake the soil after seeding to promote better seed-to-soil contact. Seeds will usually sprout within 10 to 15 days.
I’ve found that celosia seeds tend to sprout rather quickly when given warm, moist conditions, but they can seem to be rather slow at growing during the seedling stage. Make sure not to stress the seedlings, otherwise, they will begin to put on a tiny flower head too soon. If this happens, I will gently pinch off the top of the seedling and try to remedy the situation that triggered the plant stress as soon as possible.
This usually occurs if I’ve left the seedling in a seedling tray for too long without transplanting or if I’ve transplanted the seedling into the garden during a heat spell in the summer with little attention to watering the new transplants so they can establish well.
Propagation From Cuttings
Another form of propagation is cuttings. Cut 4 to 6 inches off the top of the plant and remove the lower leaves. Make sure to remove the flower head if the plant happens to be flowering at the time by cutting off the top of the plant above a set of leaves.
Place the cutting in a jar with enough water that the spot where the leaves were removed is submerged. In about 3 to 4 weeks, the cuttings should have roots growing from the stem, and this is when the cutting can be potted up or planted into the garden. Water well in the first week to establish roots of the plant.
How to Plant and Grow
Plant spacing depends on the species or variety of celosia being grown. Fan-shaped crested varieties like ‘Bombay’ are grown as a single stem and therefore can be planted as close as 6 inches apart. Most wheat and plume celosias are planted between 9 and 12 inches apart.
A well-branched cockscomb variety will need between 12 and 18 inches between plants. In containers, the dwarf plumed varieties can be grown relatively close together, though the dwarf cockscomb varieties may need more spacing due to their wider, brainy flower-heads.
Celosia plants are virtually maintenance-free if left to their own devices. It is important to maintain moisture while the plants are getting established, but otherwise, the plants will thrive even in short-term drought-like conditions.
Providing a well-balanced (mostly equal parts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) fertilizer to the soil is beneficial at transplant or when the celosia plant is around 6 to 8 inches tall. When the plant is ready to flower, it is important to use a fertilizer with a higher amount of phosphorus than nitrogen in order to boost flower growth.
To encourage more branching (i.e. more blooms), you can pinch off the tops of the plants when they are about 6 inches tall. Pinching just above a set of leaves will promote long branches great for cutting. To encourage more blooms as the season goes on, you can cut flowers at the base of where their stem meets the main stem of the plant, and this will cause the plant to send out more branches and blooms.
An exception for pinching should be made for the Bombay series of celosias. These plants will not send out another flower head usually, so you should not pinch these plants.
The cockscomb cultivars can have quite heavy brain-like flower heads that cause the branches to droop under their weight. These may benefit from staking or support of some kind to keep the plant upright.
For use in floral arrangements or for drying, cut the flower heads when the first few inflorescences have begun to open at the bottom on the wheat or plumed celosias or when the crest of the crested varieties is as full and as wavy as you like. You may wait to harvest also, but if you wait too long, then your celosia flowers will drop tiny black seeds.
To harvest stems, cut at the base of the branch where the stem meets the main stem of the plant or cut above a set of leaves. Sometimes you will see an axillary bud just above a set of leaves. Cut above this bud and the plant will send out more branches and more blooms.
To collect seeds from celosia plants, there is no need to wait until the flower head has faded. As mentioned above, the plant will begin dropping seeds prior to all of the inflorescences opening. I like to cut stems that have mostly flowered and hang them to dry for a day or so where the seeds will drop readily with a gentle shake.
To dry celosia, especially the beautiful, large brainy cockscomb heads, simply cut at the base of a stem or above a set of leaves and hang the stem upside down to dry. To maintain color, dry in a cool, dark place with good air circulation for a week or two. Dried cockscomb is simply beautiful in a dried flower arrangement or a wreath around the holidays!
Varieties of Celosia
There are many different types and sizes of celosia! Not only are the flowers shaped differently, but the plants can range in size, too. Depending on where you’re going to plant your celosia or how you’re going to use it will depend on the variety you select.
These usually bloom between 8 and 24 inches tall. The ‘Fresh Look’ series has bright green leaves with plumed flower heads of orange, red, and yellow. The ‘New Look’ variety has purple-tinged foliage with blazing red plumes. Both ‘Fresh Look’ and ‘New Look’ top out around 14 inches.
‘Pampas Plume’ is the traditional classic plumed celosia flowering at about 4 feet with a mix of colors. ‘Kimono’ series celosias are dwarf at about 8 inches with plumes of bright colors of cherry red, cream, orange, red (with bronze leaves), rose, scarlet, and yellow.
Cristata (Crested) Varieties
Cristata varieties with their brain or coral-like flower-heads usually bloom when the plants are between 12 and 36 inches tall. The ‘Bombay’ series has a fan-shaped crested head in many colors. Make sure not to pinch this variety.
The ‘Chief’ series was bred especially for cut flowers on long stems with the plant reaching about 40 inches. ‘Spring Green’ is an interesting fan-shaped variety with vibrant green color. Like the Bombay series, this one should not be pinched. The ‘Coral Garden’ variety is an exception to the 12 to 36-inch growth habit of the crested varieties, with the plants being dwarf and topping out at about 3 inches before blooming.
Spicata (Wheat) Varieties
Spicata varieties are nicknamed ‘wheat’ celosia because of their spiky wheat-like appearance. They will grow to between 12 and 48 inches tall mostly. ‘Ruby Parfait’ has deep purple inflorescences that fade to light purple and are excellent as a cut flower.
‘Cramer’s Hi-Z’ has a longer flower-head than ‘Ruby Parfait’ but with a similar deep purple or magenta color. Hi-Z is very prolific once it takes off. The ‘Celway’ series has beautiful colors that are trendy in the cut flower world, like salmon, terracotta, orange, and white. ‘Flamingo Feather’ has feathery plumes that are a soft pink turning to white.
Pest and Disease Prevention
Pests and diseases do not normally bother celosias, though there are downy mildew-resistant varieties on the market. Dampening off can be common with celosia seedlings, so make sure to let the seed-starting mix dry out a little between watering of seedlings.
Mites can be a pest of celosia, but these can be controlled by spraying insecticidal soap or releasing ladybugs as a biological control. Reports of stem rot and leaf spot can be heard of in cold, wet conditions, of which celosias are not tolerant.
Planting celosia after the last frost in warm, well-draining soil should prevent any sort of stem rot or leaf spots. For the most part, celosias are stellar when it comes to pest and disease resistance.
Celosia plants are typically used in the landscaping or cut flower industry. Dwarf varieties are often used as bedding plants in pots and containers, and the taller varieties are planted within the landscape for a colorful impact. Large cockscomb heads give a punch of color in the Fall garden and can be an excellent conversation piece.
Leaves of celosia plants are edible and have a spinach-like taste, however, the leaves will become more bitter after flowering.
Frequently Asked Questions
Does celosia like shade?
No. Celosia thrives in full sun. Flower quality will likely be poor if these plants are grown in full shade, though celosia can tolerate part shade.
Can I grow celosia indoors?
Yes! These plants provide cheerful color indoors. Celosia plumosa varieties will show color for a month or more inside. Sow seeds thicker than normal when inside and make sure to set in a sunny location. Celosia will need at least 8 to 10 hours of sunlight if growing indoors. The plants will be more tall and slender in appearance but will resemble colorful little trees. Choose dwarf varieties if growing indoors.
Should I cut off the dead flowers of my celosia?
Yes. It is best to remove the flowers as they begin to fade in color. Try not to wait until the flowers have set seed so that the plant can use its energy to put out new flowers rather than seed. This process is known as deadheading. If it is Fall and the flowers have begun to fade, you may cut them off to dry but cutting them off to encourage new growth is unlikely as the plants will either not have the time to put out new flowers before frost or not have the required energy.
How do I dry my cockscomb without it losing its color?
The main enemy of color when drying flowers is light. Make sure to cut your cockscomb or celosia and hang them upside down in a dry, well-ventilated space with very little to no light to prevent fading of color. When used in a dried bouquet or wreath, the color should last for at least 6 months if dried properly and not in direct sunlight.
If you want to grow flowers that are low maintenance, virtually disease-free, and vividly colorful, then look no further. Whether it’s a brain-like cockscomb, a fiery plumed variety, or a spiky wheat celosia, I promise you’ll be pleased with the radiance this plant will impart to your garden! The ability to dry this plant and enjoy it in the winter months, too, is the cherry on top!