Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

Plumed Cockscomb, CELOSIA ARGENTEA

from the June 1, 2014 Newsletter issued from the Frio Canyon Nature Education Center in the valley of the Dry Frio River in northern Uvalde County, southwestern Texas, on the southern border of the Edwards Plateau, USA

Neighbor Phred keeps a colorful flower-garden watered, and nowadays one of his most eye-catching occupants is the ankle-high dwarf cultivar shown above.

That's three plants, not one with multicolored flower heads. Often gardeners call this Plumed Cockscomb, but it's marketed under many names, including Celosia 'Plumosa' and Feathered Amaranth. The binomial most experts seem to have settled on is CELOSIA ARGENTEA, of which there are many cultivars classified into at least two broad groups. Members of the "Cristata Group" look like bright, fuzzy, somewhat vertically flattened brains, and often are called cockscombs. The "Plumosa Group," to which Phred's belongs, produce spiky flowering heads. Then there are lots of in-between types available in many sizes and colors.

Celosias are members of the Amaranth Family, noted for producing small flowers with no corollas, but rather often having the flowering head itself brightly colored, doing the corollas' job of attracting animals with brightness. Within the flowering heads, color is provided by calyxes, which in typical flowers are green, and modified leaves, or bracts. If you look closely at a flowering head you see something like what's shown below:

Plumed Cockscomb, CELOSIA ARGENTEA, close-up of colored bracts

There's nothing there displaying symmetry or exhibiting parts suggesting sexual reproduction, such as stamens or ovaries with stigmas tipped styles. Fact is, Plumed Cockscomb's genes have been so scrambled by horticulturalists bent on getting the absolute most color out of the poor plant that if humans were to disappear, so would these mixed-up plants. Genetically, Phred's plants are tetraploids, meaning that they bear four sets of chromosomes, not the usual two sets (one from the male parent and one from the female parent).

If you look hard amidst all that colorful mess sometimes you might find a calyx, such as the pink one below:

Plumed Cockscomb, CELOSIA ARGENTEA, calyx

Celosias that have had their genes minimally manipulated can produce lots of fruits producing seeds that will easily sprout the next season, but I just don't know if Phred's super-altered plants will produce viable seeds. I have nothing against color, but there's something here that vividly speaks to a lethal and therefore profoundly sad feature of the human condition. That is, the default hankering among most humans for more and more of brighter and brighter everything, everything... at the expense of symmetry and proportion, of elegance and naturalness, of life and sustainability.

Each time I walk by these gorgeously colorful dwarfs in Phred's garden they give me the creeps