By Terry W. Johnson
My wife and I are constantly seeking new plants to add to our wildlife gardens. Our primary objective is to use native plants that are pleasing to the eye and provide a wide range of wildlife with food throughout the year. However, we also use some noninvasive ornamentals. For these, we are particularly fond of plants with historical associations.
A few years ago, we tried globe amaranth (Gomphrena globosa). The plant blooms from late spring into October, generates nectar for a variety of butterflies, bees and other pollinators, and produce seeds relished by some of our favorite backyard birds. If that is not enough, the plant will not spread beyond our yard. Remarkably, globe amaranth has a history in the New World that dates to the colonial era.
I personally was not familiar with globe amaranth – which is also called everlasting bachelor button and flower of immortality – until my wife, Donna, suggested we plant some in our garden. She has fond childhood memories of globe amaranth growing in flower gardens planted by her mother and grandmother in northeast Alabama.
Historical records tell us that John Custis grew globe amaranth is his gardens in Williamsburg, Va., in 1737. Thomas Jefferson sowed globe amaranth seeds in his garden on April 2, 1767. George Washington held globe amaranth is such high esteem that he found a place for it in his gardens, too.
I do not know why the plant’s popularity has waned. Perhaps it is because the seed is sometimes hard to find. However, the truth of matter may be that globe amaranth is consistently overshadowed by the newest, largest or most showy cultivars.
At any rate, globe amaranth is stunning. Nowadays, the plants typically produce white, pink or purple clover-like blooms. The globe amaranths that grow in my yard are pink. (It is interesting to note that hundreds of years ago globe amaranth blossoms were peach-colored).
Each globe-shaped bloom is an inch to an inch-and-a-half in diameter. Globe amaranth plants grow upwards of 2 feet tall, although dwarf varieties are also available. To be clear, what we call flowers are technically bracts. Each bract contains almost countless bright-colored leaves surrounding miniature flowers.
Globe amaranth is native to Central America. Yet over the centuries it has found its way into gardens throughout much of the world. This showy ornamental grows well in Georgia. It can withstand the hot summer sun and often-infrequent summer showers, although it performs best when watered regularly.
We have had good luck planting globe amaranth in flowerbeds and large containers. However, we have come to prefer growing them in pots placed on our deck. Globe amaranth grown in this manner has enhanced our opportunities to enjoy both the plants and the wildlife they attract. All we have to do is walk outside our back door, sit down and watch the show.
One of the plant’s traits that we really appreciate is that it readily reseeds. Since the seeds have a low germination rate, don’t be afraid to plant too many. If you end of with a thick stand, the extra plants can always be thinned out later. Here’s another tip for planting: The seeds will germinate much quicker if soaked overnight in water. If you don’t want to start globe amaranth plants from seed you can sometimes find them at nurseries.
The first year we planted globe amaranth, my wife bought a single packet of seeds. Since then, she has planted seeds she collected the previous year. The seeds are harvested by snipping off seed heads that have lost their brilliant color. The dried seed heads are stored in plastic bags. When spring rolls around again, after preparing a seedbed, she crushes the dried seed heads over the soil. This releases a bounty of white seeds, which she presses into the moist soil.
Butterflies and bees are the pollinators we most often see visiting globe amaranth blossoms. To date, we have spotted more than 20 species of butterflies nectaring on the flowers. This roster includes the monarch, American lady, cabbage white, red-banded hairstreak, eastern tiger swallowtail and pearl crescent. However, the blooms seem to attract more skippers than any other group of butterflies. The lineup ranges from the tiny least skipper to the fiery skipper, ocola, clouded skipper, silver-spotted skipper and many more.
Often some of these butterflies are difficult to view in garden settings. However, for some reason, skippers, in particular, are more approachable when visiting globe amaranth grown in containers.
One of the most surprising discoveries we have made since we began growing globe amaranth in containers is that birds will regularly visit the flowers in search of the plant’s tiny seeds. The first indication that something odd was taking place on our deck was finding colorful bracts scattered on the floor near the pots of globe amaranth. Finally, one day as I was drinking a cup of coffee while gazing out the kitchen window, I saw a group of the plants shaking violently. Focusing my attention on the plants, I spotted a female cardinal pulling apart several blossoms. The cardinal then snipped off an entire flower head and flew away. Shortly thereafter, a male cardinal flow in and ate his share of the seeds. Since that time, we have also seen American goldfinches and house finches avail themselves of the seeds, as well.
Each time I gaze at globe amaranth growing in my yard, I can’t help but believe that early American gardeners noticed birds, butterflies and other insects visiting their globe amaranth plants. If they did, I hope they appreciated the wildlife attracted to these beautiful plants as much as we do.
Terry W. Johnson is a retired Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division and executive director of The Environmental Resources Network, or TERN, friends group of the division’s Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column.) Learn more about TERN, see previous “Out My Backdoor” columns, read Terry’s Backyard Wildlife Connection blog and check out his latest book, “A Journey of Discovery: Monroe County Outdoors.”