Of all the world’s vegetable crops celosia is far and away the prettiest. Deriving from the Greek word ‘kelos,’ meaning burned; the name itself refers to the plant’s brilliant appearance and striking flame-like flowers. In a hundred nations the showy heads of this species1 seem to outshine the sun in gardens, window boxes, streetside displays, and floral exhibits. Not only are the flowers richly hued, their deep-green foliage may also be shot through with streaks of red or purple pigment. As a result, celosia can be eye catching even before it blossoms.
But although this plant catches eyes almost everywhere on earth, few of its admirers know that it is edible, let alone that it is an important leafy vegetable in parts of tropical Africa. In Nigeria, Benin, and Congo, to name just three countries, the fresh young leaves are a common item of diet. They are primarily eaten in a dish prepared from various vegetable greens, combined with onion, eggplant, hot peppers, palm oil (or other vegetable oil), and fish or meat. Sometimes, peanut butter is also added as a thickener. All the ingredients are added to one pot, and brought to a steady boil to produce a tasty and nutritious “soup.”2
To such dishes celosia leaves certainly contribute their share of nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, iron, and vitamins, as well as not a little protein. Among people in the know, these dark-green leaves are valued especially for physical (and, at least according to rumor, sexual) stamina.3
This intensively cultivated leafy vegetable usually grows about a meter tall but can tower well over 2 m.4 Two types predominate: One bears
brightly colored flower heads that look like soft, fluffy plumes and remind the observer of crimson, scarlet, or gold feathers. The other is a grotesque genetic anomaly whose flowers are crammed together into wavy lines. These massively wrinkled yellow, orange, crimson, or pink crests often resemble cock’s combs. Other variants look like some bright brain coral that inadvertently crawled up out of its habitat beneath the tropical seas.
Because of its flavor, food value, and familiarity, the crop is widely consumed in several parts of Africa. It is, however, of greatest importance in Nigeria and nearby countries. The leaves, young stems, and young flower spikes are handled like spinach. They go into soups and stews, and are served as a nutty-flavored side dish with meat or fish or more commonly with a cereal-based main course such as maize porridge. In some places the leaves are finely chopped and sprinkled into the cooking pot. The flavor is reportedly pleasant, mild, and entirely lacking the bitterness that sometimes spoils other leafy vegetables. The nutritional value is roughly like that of other leafy vegetables.
Despite its African origin (a claim that is not without dispute), celosia is known as a foodstuff in Indonesia and India. Moreover, in the future it might become more widely eaten, especially in the hot and malnourished regions of the equatorial zone. In that regard, it has already been hailed as the often-wished-for vegetable that “grows like a weed without demanding all the tender loving care that other vegetables seem to need.”5
Because of its wide tolerance to both tropical and dry conditions and because it is usually unaffected by pests, diseases, or soil type, it is among the most promising greens for harsh or fickle growing conditions. The plants spring up with surprising vigor from each tiny seed. They have especial promise for cultivation near millions of huts and hovels, whose occupants can then both enjoy these flamboyant floral accessories and also pluck off some leaves each day and drop them into the soup pot. However, it should be noted that to yield well they need fertile soil.
For subsistence production these supremely self-reliant and uncomplicated resources seem ideally suited. The ornamental form is already spread worldwide and is often to be seen growing, uncultivated and happy as a weed. They propagate easily, require little care, and often reseed themselves year after year. Kaphikautesi, a name used for this plant in
Celosia seems a promising green for use in the hot humid tropics, especially during the rainy season. It can be very high yielding and its young leaves have a good taste and a good nutritional value. Cheap, simple, productive, heartwarming, this crop lifts life, not only perking up the surroundings with its flowers but perking up the consumers with a healthy, nourishing food. It is an excellent vegetable type to be promoted, at least in West and Central Africa where it is already known.
Humid Areas Excellent. Celosia is grown throughout West Africa’s warmer and wetter sections. It is, for instance, Southern Nigeria’s most important leaf vegetable and is raised in myriad home gardens and farm plots, both for family and the local market. Humidity and heavy rainfall fail to limit growth, so celosia is commonly cultivated during the wet season when other crops succumb to molds, mildews, and like maladies.
Dry Areas Modest. For maximum development the plants normally require at least moderate soil moisture. Although they survive dry periods, without irrigation the level of leaf production is likely to be uneconomic in parched climes.
Upland Areas Excellent. The plant is well known in East Africa’s highlands under its Swahili name, mfungu.
Throughout the world’s temperate regions people enjoy this easy-to-grow short-lived (ornamental) annual during the summer months. Few, however, know that celosia is a warm-weather spinach substitute. They plant it for show rather than soup. Celosia is also eaten in India—although one report notes that it is eaten “in times of scarcity.” So maybe it lacks cachet as a food there as well.
Generally, celosia is used like leaf amaranth (see Chapter 1).
Leaves As already stated, the leaves—not to mention young stems and young inflorescences—are eaten as potherbs. They soften up readily and cook in just minutes. The texture is soft; the flavor very mild and spinach-like. These boiled greens are often added to stews. They are also pepped up with such things as garlic, hot pepper, fresh lime, and red palm oil and eaten as a side dish.
Forage At least occasionally the plants are chopped and used as feed for chickens. The literature also reports them being employed as forage for cattle. The foliage is, however, thought to accumulate oxalate.
Ornamental Uses African families plant celosia as a vegetable not as an ornamental, but let a few plants grow to flowering to get seed. Its use as an ornamental is hardly known in Africa, but it could be. Elsewhere in the world, this is among the most popular choices for bedding and border plants, tall backgrounds, edging, and pot and container production. The blossoms also make ideal cut flowers. In addition, they are easy to dry, being merely hung upside down in a dark, dry place for several weeks. In this form they retain their form and color and can be incorporated into dry bouquets and everlasting flower arrangements. One type, known as woolflower,6 is especially notable, producing elegant, chaffy flower spikes that glisten even when dry as dust.
Striga Suppression The celosia plant is believed to repress striga, a parasitic weed that devastates sorghum, millet, and maize across Africa. This weed, which engenders both hunger and poverty, thrives where soils are infertile and crops ill-nourished, so it targets the poor most. Whether celosia can help farmers fight back is far from clear, but it is widely called “striga chaser” owing to a reputation for sending the weed on its way. There is not complete confirmation of such ability, but one study found that celosia stimulated striga germination and lowered overall levels 50% while increasing sorghum yields.7
Medicinal Uses Various medicinal benefits are widely claimed, including treatments for intestinal worms (particularly tapeworm), blood diseases, mouth sores, eye problems, chest complaints (seeds), and diarrhea (flowers). The leaves are employed as dressings for boils and sores, and the boiled vegetables are said to be slightly diuretic.
Celosia’s nutritional value is more-or-less comparable to that of other dark-green leaves, but it shows a large variation between samples depending on species/cultivar, soil fertility (more fertilizer means higher content of minerals, provitamin A, vitamin C), harvest stage, and moisture content.
Although many samples have been analyzed in Nigeria, few of the details have been published. Nonetheless, the leaves are believed to contain considerable protein and calcium as well as reasonable amounts of phosphorus and iron (which can be said for many dark-green leafy vegetables). They are also said to be good sources for vitamins A and C, although little tangible evidence for this has been presented so far. A standard analysis, several decades old, lists the following constituents (measured per 100 g edible leaf portion): water 84 g, calories 44, protein 4.7 g, fat 0.7 g, carbohydrate 8 g, fiber 1.8 g, calcium 260 mg, phosphorus 43 mg, and iron 7.8 mg.8
Speaking generally, the nutritional value is comparable to that of amaranth (see Chapter 1), although celosia leaves tend to contain a little more moisture.
The plants are propagated from seed, which is normally merely broadcast on top of the soil. A temporary covering of dry grass helps protect the tiny and very vulnerable seeds from washing away under heavy rain and runoff. Once they’ve germinated and set down roots (after about a week in other words) the grass covering is removed.
The seeds may also be planted directly into the soil (they must be placed at a shallow depth, 0.75 cm having been suggested). Moreover, vegetable plots can be established using seedlings transplanted from a nursery when 5-10 cm tall. For best results, it has been recommended that seedbeds be well manured and kept moist. There is nothing difficult about any of this, but weeds are a concern; the young seedlings are easily smothered.
Although relatively pest-free in most regions, the roots are susceptible to nematode infection. In Nigeria the flower stalks and upper leaves are also damaged by something called “leaf-curl.” Also in Nigeria the variegated locust attacks immature seed capsules and a beetle feeds on green capsules causing seed loss.
As for diseases, these usually present no problem, but a fungus producing white pustules on leaf undersides seriously damages celosia grown in Nigeria. It is recommended that the infected plants be destroyed to reduce the possibility of infecting subsequent plantings.
HARVESTING AND HANDLING
Typically, the farmer waits about a month or six weeks after sowing her plants before thinning the plot. The tallest plants (usually about 15 cm high) are removed until those remaining are about 25-30 cm apart. The excised
plants go into the cooking pot and represent the first of a series of harvests. As the remaining plants grow taller, the new leaves and terminal shoots are removed as they appear. This provides successive harvests every week or two until the plants get to be about 45 cm in height, a point where they turn stringy and run to seed. The harvest season typically extends for 3-5 months during the rainy season, and longer if irrigation is available.
Large leaves from young plants are best for eating, but young stems and young flower stalks may also be harvested as potherbs.
In Nigeria the quantity of leaf harvested from a 5m2 experimental plot has been measured. The green form of celosia yielded 8 kg of leaf (the equivalent of 16 tons per hectare). The red form produced 14 kg (28 tons per hectare).9
Although tough and resilient, celosia can, as mentioned, be victimized by nematodes. In this regard, a mulch that insulates and keeps the soil cool should be helpful. The plant also succumbs to water-logging or freezing temperatures.
On its face, celosia could become a weed…the world’s prettiest. However, even though it already flourishes in most countries, there is little sign of it becoming a curse. Perhaps that’s because it is enjoyed not only by every passing goat, pig, or cow but by people as well.
When the leaves are boiled, much of the pigment dissolves, turning the cooking water dark, ugly, and unappetizing. Nevertheless, when the leaves are fished out they retain their pleasant green color. The black cooking water that remains should be discarded because it likely contains dissolved nitrates and oxalates.
This crop needs exploratory investigations and documentation. Country reports from Nigeria, Benin, Cameroon, Congo, and other celosia-eating nations would provide valuable baseline data on botany, plant physiology, and growing requirements, as would collation of worldwide experience.10
In addition, this productive, hardy, and attractive plant merits trials in many more areas. Such trials are likely to attract a lot of attention and spearhead the diversification of food crops in new places.
Nutrition The nutritive qualities need to be pinned down. Although details are sketchy, the leaves are rich in protein (almost 30 percent of the
dry matter), calcium, phosphorus, iron, and provitamin A and vitamin C. Not only does this need confirmation, but the presence and effects of possible antinutritional factors or toxins should be determined.
Food Technology Now is the time to fill in basic data on celosia quality, cooking, and consumption. It could engage the gamut of food science, including storage, handling, cooking trials, and use of leaves in foods.
Horticultural Development Wherever vegetable-research programs occur, celosia should be entered into trials and research activities. Myriad questions and uncertainties remain to be fully answered, especially optimal ways to cultivate the crop for food production.
Striga Chaser Knocking back this parasitic plant would, by itself, boost the production of food in Africa. Outsiders can hardly imagine the deadening dismay of seeing striga breaking out in your fields. A farmer noticing the pink flowers spreading through the maize or millet crop can do nothing but resign to suffer. Those little blossoms mean more work, less income, more hunger. The family may pull some out, but the damage began long before those flowers appeared. Even rotating the crops or applying fertilizers does little to stop the weed’s spread. Moreover, each striga plant yields thousands of seeds, which means that the farmer’s crops will be stunted for years to come. As we have indicated, there is no formal confirmation of celosia’s reputation as a “striga chaser” and now is the moment to rectify that.
Botanical Name Celosia argentea L.
Synonyms Celosia plumosa (plume type)
English: celosia, cock’s comb, quail grass, woolflower
French: célosie, crete de coq
Nigeria: sokoyokoto, soko, aodoyokoto
Sudan: bambit (Kord), el bueida (Ar), danab el kelb, sheiba (Ar)
Swahili: mfungu (Swa)
Yoruba: shoko, yoko
Malawi: kaphikaulesi, chinkanya (Ch), ndangale (Ch), munsungwe (To), nyasungwi (T), chala cha nkhwale (Nsanje name for red kind), nsanzazywale (Nsanje name for green kind).
Zimbabwe: mundawarara (C), isihlabe (Nd), sunku (To)
Zambia: kapiko, lukuli, kalume, kapikolesi
Kenya, Tanzania: mfungu (Swa)
Uganda: ekaliyo (Kmj)
Ethiopia: belbila (Am/T), birsir, shilobai (T)
Celosia is an erect annual herb, normally about 1 m in height but sometimes much taller. The green type—the one most commonly used for food—has few branches, at least until it approaches the time for flowering. The leaves are alternate, light green, and not unlike amaranth leaves to look at. They are typically 2 x 6cm, although those on flowering shoots are slightly longer. Even the green foliage may contain large amounts of betalain pigments.
The often brilliantly colored flowers are borne in dense heads. Most occur in spikes, and stand like spears in the garden bed. But certain cultivated forms have compact or feathery clusters due to fasciation, the accumulation of genetic malformations that are of huge interest to botanists. Gardeners, in other words, love these freaks of nature.
Celosia flowers yield large numbers of seeds that are about 1 mm in diameter and are normally black.
Although the plant is known worldwide, its use for food is geographically much more limited.
Within Africa The plant is common in West Africa, from at least Sierra Leone to Nigeria. It is also known in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and other parts of East Africa. In Central Africa it is found in quantity in Congo as well as probably most surrounding nations. Celosia argentea is an important cultivated vegetable in the rainforest zone of Nigeria, Benin, and (much less) Cameroon, Gabon, Togo. The wild form (sometimes referred to as Celosia trigyna) is a potherb throughout the savanna area of tropical Africa.
Beyond Africa According to old reports, the leaves have been used as spinach in at least Sri Lanka, Yemen, Indonesia, and the West Indies. They don’t seem to have caught on widely, though.
In terms of celosia as a food crop, there are few horticultural varieties as such. However, in West Africa (especially Nigeria) two distinct forms are recognized. Green soko is erect and up to 150 cm tall. Red soko, on the other
hand, is taller (generally reaching 180 cm) and more spreading and its leaves have a distinct purple marking. Although leaves from both forms are equally good to eat, the green-leafed type is more popular as a food crop.
The exact environmental requirements are unknown, but that hardly limits the crop because it is adaptable enough to perform well under diverse climates.
Photoperiod At least the West African vegetable species (Celosia argentea) is a short-day plant. And it needs high light intensity to maintain regular leaf development. Flowers rarely form in seasons and locations with long days.
Rainfall Generally more than 600 mm. Heavy rainfall will not limit growth but the plant can be sensitive to drought.
Altitude Grows well in low altitudes; but occurs up to 1,700 m in Ethiopia and occasionally up to 1,500 m in the Himalayas.
Low Temperature Must be planted when all danger of frost has passed.
High Temperature A stable high temperature of 20-25°C is suitable for both edible varieties. But celosia does quite well in Florida’s cool winter as well as its hot summer.11
Soil Celosia tolerates many different soil conditions, although high levels of organic matter encourages good yields and reduces damage from rootknot nematodes