A stroll amongst Amaranthaceae

Saturday, 24 April 2010

Foliage of Celosia spicata

Amaranthaceae is the name of one of the plant families of which I am fond. Its 65 genera contain some flowering plants (which have exotic and unusual blooms) as well as other that are best known for their stunning foliage: both kinds are stalwarts of my Sydney garden. Most members of this family come from tropical Africa, Asia and America - the source of many plants that thrive in our mild climate - and some are even edible!

Amaranthus caudatus

I have mentioned Amaranthus caudatus before in my blogs - an amazing lofty annual sometimes known as love-lies-bleeding, which grows up to 1-1.2m tall, with long drooping burgundy tassels quite unlike any other plant I have ever seen. It flowers for months: from early summer until the beginning of winter. It is an inveterate self-seeder: I pull out hundreds of seedlings every year, but they are easily removed and to my mind, the task is worth it so that you are just left with a few robust specimens. There is a gorgeous dark-leaved variety, which started to appear in my garden after I hurled a few seeds around that a friend gave me. I am not so keen on the upright burgundy flowers of this one, but the leaves are very attractive. There is a green-flowered version ('Viridis') which I have never really liked as much as the burgundy-flowered one. Amaranthus caudatus was used by the Aztecs for food, the seeds being ground into flour and the young leaves cooked like a type of spinach; the plant has been known colloquially as Inca wheat.

A different annual species, Amaranthus tricolor (ht 1-1.3m), has flamboyant leaves that are multicoloured in various hues of lurid scarlet, green, yellow, bronze or orange. It lasts well in the garden until late autumn. I haven't ever grown it but I can see its potential in a bright tropical border of hot-coloured flowers; its own blooms are insignificant. Some cultivars of it are referred to as Chinese spinach and used as leaf vegetables. All Amaranthus will grow easily - all too easily, some might say - in any sunny position.

Celosia spicata (foreground) with ornamental grass, at the former Belrose Nursery

Another showy summer/autumn-flowering member of the family is Celosia. Celosia spicata (ht 60cm or more) has upright plumes of soft pink and purple, combined with narrow, pretty purple-flushed leaves and can take on the proportions of a small shrub: in fact it looks a bit like a Hebe at first glance. Like Amaranthus caudatus, it is regarded as an annual and propagated by seed, but recently I took cuttings of a magnificent Celosia spicata specimen that the owner told me had survived through winter and seems to be a perennial. This plant associates very well with ornamental grasses, its blooms echoing theirs. A smaller annual species, Celosia argentea (ht 15-60cm), has two quite contrasting forms: the Plumosa group has upright feathers in colours of brilliant red, yellow, pink, purple or apricot, whereas the Cristata group has flattened, fan-shaped cerise inflorescences that look rather like lumps of coral. The leaves of Celosia argentea are apparently eaten in India as a vegetable. Like Amaranthus caudatus, Celosia flowers are very long lasting and can be cut for vases, or even dried for a dried-flower arrangement. They all need sun and enjoy moisture.

Iresine herbstii Brilliantissima (centre) with cerise Salvia San Carlos Festival (foreground)

Two of my favourite foliage plants belong to the Amaranthaceae: Iresine and Alternanthera. Their flowers are insignificant but their leaves are very beautiful and bring strong colours into the garden. Brazilian perennial Iresine herbstii (ht 60cm) has cerise, yellow/green variegated and deep purple-brown foliage forms, which look good almost all year round in our climate, only becoming a bit straggly in winter. Once cut back in late August, they regrow to form an effective mound of foliage for the rest of the year. Iresine 'Pretty Lady' (ht 20cm) is a nice dark-leaved groundcover cultivar, which can be grown in a pot or basket; it is probably the most cold sensitive of the commonly seen Iresine. The cerise form matches very well with some of the Salvia cultivars with flowers of a similar hue, and the deep purple-brown ones provide a dramatic contrast to flowers of almost any colour: I particularly like them partnered with blue or burgundy blooms.

Alternanthera dentata

Alternanthera dentata (ht 50cm) has deep aubergine-coloured leaves, smaller than those of the Iresine but forming a wider shape. It becomes a bit sad in winter but will perk up after its annual trim in August - don't be tempted to cut it before this as it may die during a very cold snap, being a tropical plant. There are a few variegated-leaf forms, with lovely splashes of cerise on the dark leaves, but I find them to be very cold sensitive, so are best regarded as annuals. There is also a groundcovering variety of A. dentata called tricolor (ht 15cm), which comes in colours of green, gold and red, though I have never grown it, so am not sure how cold tolerant it is in Sydney. The foliage of some sorts of Alternanthera is eaten with fish or rice in certain cultures.

We even have an Australian native member of the Amaranthaceae: Ptilotus manglesii (ht 30cm), which has fluffy pink, white and silvery flower heads from late winter to early summer. This perennial needs very well-drained soil in full sun.

The amazing Amarathus family can add some tropical fun to your garden!

Reader Comments

  • By Kimberly 5087 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 26 April 2010

    Thanks for the info on Amaranthaceae! I have had Iresine herbstii planted outside our front door and it gets a blast of morning sun in summer which bleaches out the pink leaves a bit but it always bounces back and is a very special plant in my garden. Ptlotus being in the family was a surprise!

    Thanks, Kimberly. Iresine is very resiliant and decorative, and I would never be without it! Deirdre.

  • By margaret 3127 (Zone:10 - Mediteranean) Monday, 26 April 2010

    I would like to sayhow much I appreciate you site, and all the interesting information that you have, Kind regards, Madmaddy

    Thank for your positive feedback, Margaret! Deirdre

  • By jan 2072 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Monday, 26 April 2010

    Thank you Deidre for opening up my world of plants. I think I would like to grow the colours of burgandy, white and blue/purple in the garden and loved the photographs of the family of Amaranthaceae. Do they have a preference for full sun or part shade? Also went to Bilpin and loved it. Jan.B

    Thanks, Jan. Glad you enjoyed the fair last week! Amaranthus and Celosia do prefer sun but Iresine and Alternanthera will grow well in either sun or part shade. Deirdre

  • By margaret 2122 (Zone:10 - Warm Temperate) Friday, 30 April 2010

    Another informative blog - thank you! I am fond of this group of plants. I have an Amaranthus called fat spike - it is seven feet high, and has a stem the size of a small tree trunk! However, it looks quite majestic in the garden. Your enthusiasm encourages the aquisition of more plants!

    Thanks, Margaret. I like the sound of fat spike! Deirdre

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