As summer draws to a close, many flowers start to fade. Among the withering yellow, there are patches of purple-red standing upright, each resembling a rooster raising its comb in pride. This is Wild Coxcomb (Celosia argentea).
Wild Coxcomb is a medium-sized herb that can reach 1 metre tall. It is in the Amaranthaceae, the same family as the edible Chinese Spinach (Amaranthus tricolor). Members of this family are tough and resilient and can survive on poor land with strong sunlight. Wild Coxcomb can thrive even in concrete crevices.
The flower buds of Wild Coxcomb cluster at the branch tips. They emerge in tiny purple red cones and gradually blossom from the bottom. As they grow, the colour changes to silver white, while the buds at the top are still purple-red. When the flower string grows long, it looks like a burning white candle!
Not all flowers on the long string blossom at the same time. Yet the many flower strings provide abundant nectar for butterflies and bees. At this time in early autumn, Danaidae butterflies start to prepare themselves for overwintering. Hence, Wild Coxcombs are often seen to be crowded by the butterflies.
Dried flowers in the wild
If you gently touch the Wild Coxcomb flower string, you will find that it feels hard and rough, like a dried flower. This is because the petals and sepals of Wild Coxcomb are combined into dried films called ‘perianths’ to prevent water loss in adapting to the scorching sun and dried soil. These perianths will not drop off after the stamens and pistils wither, but will stay on the plant and close slightly like the original flower buds. They stay on the plant for such a long time that they appear like dried flowers.
The perianths also protect the fruits and seeds. The seed is in fact a well-known Chinese medicine. Its use to cure eye diseases was recorded in the ancient book, “Shennong's Root and Herbal Classic”. You should not prescribe the medicine by yourself as there are side effects. The medicine should be used under professional guidance.
The ancestor of Coxcomb
Wild Coxcomb has been cultivated for ornamental uses since ancient times due to its bright colours and long flowering period. Some species mutated to form large and spectacular flower strings. After generations of breeding efforts, they have become Coxcomb, (Celosia argentea var. cristata) which are commonly seen in parks. The cultivated species with different colours are taken care of in the gardens, while their ancestor continues to flourish in the wild!