Gardening: Heirloom annuals make colorful additions

Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

Some of the most asked-about flowers in the Rochester OPC Stone House display garden are members of the Amaranth family that produce brilliant color for most of the season.

Globe Amaranth, more commonly called gomphrena, is native to the tropics of the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. However, it has been grown in American gardens since the 1700s.  The Greeks said it signified immortality, and in Victorian times, it was an emblem of friendship. 

Truffula™ Pink Globe Amaranth

The native plant had clover like magenta flowers, but today’s cultivars produce straw-like sphere shaped flowers in pink, white, purple and orange, as well as magenta. The plants rise from 12 inches to 2 feet in height and the small vibrant blooms stand above mounds of dark green leaves.    

In today’s gardens, the blooms are valued as accents and also make excellent fresh cut and dried flowers.

Another heirloom annual that has risen in popularity and is considered by many to be a “hot” new kid on the block is celosia.  Three common varieties to look for are plume, cockscomb and wheat.

The plume celosias produce soft feathery plumes in brilliant colors of red, orange and yellow on 10- to 24-inch plants. Once considered far too garish to use in modern plantings, today when it comes to color, drama is in. While a large planting of yellow plume celosias may be boring texture wise, intermixing them with the short varieties of zinnias, such the Profusion and Zahara series, adds interesting texture and a bit of height.

In my estimation, the queen of the plume celosia is deep red ‘Dragon’s Breath’ that climbs to 20 to 24 inches in height. Elegant green foliage that turns more to red as the weather heats up makes it a stunner in mid to late summer.  

Twisted Red Cockscomb

The wheat celosia ‘Intenze,’ with its two-toned spike shaped blossoms, are a perfect foil for the round spheres of gomphrena.

The cockscomb celosia -- some refer to them as “brain” flowers --  are also making a huge comeback. They make quite a statement in container plantings.  Talk about a pop of color and unusual textures.  They too make great dried flowers.

All these flowers are easy to grow, but they are best planted outdoors when the weather heats up. Plant them too early and the plants may be stunted and fail to thrive. They need full sun and do best in good organic soil that drains well.

Johnny’s Select Seeds website at  has a great step-by-step tutorial on how to handle cut flowers and air drying.  Check out their grower’s library.

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and a Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at