I’ve always thought cockscomb was an unattractive flower. A little scary, to tell the truth. Maybe not even quite belonging to the category “flower” in my mind.
I don’t remember whether it was appearance or name that I disliked first. The brainlike shape and oversaturated, show-offy colors made me want to look away. The name was offputting, with its two aggressive, equally stressed syllables. In-your-face and in-your-ear, neither pretty-looking nor pretty-sounding — it wasn’t a plant I’d want in my yard.
The day a friend and I planted our shared plot in a community garden, one of the guys in charge planted some of the unclaimed beds with flower seeds. Sunflowers, cosmos, rudbeckia. The first two I knew. I’d learned the name for cosmos when my friend Sally sowed some in her community garden plot next to mine in the 1980s. Rudbeckia I knew as brown-eyed susans (or black-eyed, depending on where you grew up or whom you learned the name from). Eventually they germinated, took root, grew. And something else grew among them. The garden guy identified it by its stalk. Celosia. It has this great, crazy kind of bloom, he said, describing it further with a kinetic twist of his hands.
It’s also called cockscomb, he said.
Someone sowed celosia seeds last year, and volunteers came up this year, self-seeded by last year’s fallen blooms. When I saw them sprouting in our bed, I pulled them. When I saw them taking over some unplanted beds, I decided to be glad that at least something was growing there.
One of the wondrous perks of this garden is flower privileges. We are allowed to cut flowers and take them home. Last Sunday morning when I stopped by to water and relieve the sagging cherry tomato plant of its goldest golden globes, I sprayed some water from the hose into a Nalgene bottle from the car and snipped myself a small bouquet. A sunflower; brown-eyed susans; orange, pink, and white cosmos. I considered the velvety red heads of the celosia. I snipped two and brought them home. One went in the table vase, one in the Coke bottle vase in the bathroom.
I admit, the new name softened me. Celosia — a soft C, unlike the two hard C’s of cockscomb. Three or four syllables (depending on how you draw out the end), but only one with a strong stress. Vowels outnumbering consonants. Cockscomb comes from the fact that the blooms of some varieties resemble a rooster’s comb. Celosia comes through Latin from a Greek word, kelos, that also describes appearance: burned or dry.
It reminds me of Dana Gioia’s poem “Words.” It begins,
The world does not need words. It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows. The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
But knowing the name for a thing increases a thing’s realness, he suggests.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper—
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads. To name is to know and remember.
My about-face on cockscomb also came from contact. From being near them as I tended my own little bit of earth.
Now, the seeds for these came from a family-owned seed company; they didn’t start as plants bought from a megastore’s garden department. So they might have a slightly more fairy-tale appearance than those commoners. But I have marveled at how the ones who had beds to themselves grew to five feet tall or more. I noticed how their growth resembles not just brains or rooster combs, but fans, brushes, a certain kind of curly-edged knitted scarf. I touched them, and learned through my fingertips: soft in some spots, fuzzy, even a little stiff-brushed in others.
Apparently in some parts of the world, celosia is not just for looking at; it’s for eating too, in some places as a leafy green vegetable, in others as a thickening agent in stew.
This reminds me a little of when a young woman I know stopped calling bananas “the epitome of nastiness” because she tried one on a challenge and decided she liked them. It reminds me a lot of a pet we misjudged.
Years ago we had a neighbor with a funny-looking dog with large black blotches over his brown, gray and white speckled fur. We joked that it looked like an unfortunate crossbreeding. Then we learned his name, Inky, and learned that he was an Australian koolie. He was supposed to look like that. And even if he had been a mutt, the name “Inky” pronounced acceptance of his appearance. He seemed friendlier once we knew how to address him.
What else have I misjudged because of its name, or because of an early prejudice? What else would I come to appreciate if I simply took the time to see it, really see it, and to learn what it else it might be called?
What have you positively changed your mind about? Did it have something to do with a name?
I’m linking up with Charity Singleton Craig.