The button-like, papery flower heads of the ornamental annual Gomphrena globosa will be familiar to many readers, but compared to petunias and pansies, the genus hasn't received a lot of attention from breeders. This may be changing, however, with some significant new varieties released in recent years. We're likely to see more buzz about gomophrenas in the near future, so it's time to get to know them better.
Gomphrena species belong to the family Amaranthaceae, which contains a variety of edible, ornamental and weed species. Ornamental Amaranthaceae include Amaranthus and Celosia as well as Gomphrena. The recently commercialised Australian native Ptilotus is also a member of this family.
The "flowers" of Gomphrena species are actually a cluster of papery bracts between which the tiny true flowers are borne. New bracts and flowers are developed at the tip as old ones fall away, meaning the "flower" can last quite a long time on the plant.
Narrow leaves borne on branching stems with long internodes mean the larger types, if given space, form an attractive low bush of airy foliage, especially if given a bit of tip pruning early on.
Gomphrenas love heat. They can also tolerate some dryness, are relatively pest and disease free and have a long bloom preiod. These qualities help explain why the genus is making inroads in the bedding plant scene, given our increasing need to reduce water, chemical and labour inputs.
While well suited to traditional garden styles, the unusual "architectural" form of both flowers and overall plant habit means they are not out of place in more contemporary designs.
There has also been an surge of interest in butterfly gardens in recent years, and gomphrenas are popular to include as a nectar source.
What's more, they are suitable for cut flowers, either fresh or dried. With so many admirable qualities, it's little wonder they're becoming so popular.
Commonly known as globe amaranth or bachelor buttons. Generations of gardeners have valued this annual for its ease of growth, especially in hot conditions. It is believed that globe amaranth originated in India and was introduced to America in 1714 .
Some well-known G. globosa strains include Buddy and Gnome. Some of the QIS series are G. globosa. Globe amaranth is a facultative short day plant .
While G. globosa varieties come in the white/pink/purple colour ranges, G. haageana is notable in the orange/red spectrum. It originates from the southwest of North America and has been cultivated since the mid 1800s .
The growth habit is also larger and can last more than one year in a suitable climate. The longer stems make it more suitable for commercial cut flower production.
Best known form is 'Strawberry Fields', with a orange-red flower heads that look a little like strawberries. It has been in cultivation overseas since the 1920s at least . Other red and orange selections are also commercially available as part of the QIS Series. There's a lavender variety in the US.
Marketed as having "more blooms per plant than other gomphrenas", and a "scaffolding" habit , the arrival of Fireworks around 2009 did a great deal to increase interest in the genus.
Those who have grown it rave about its toughness, prolific blooming and its stunning visual effect. It can reach over a metre high and wide, with flowers held aloft on long stems. It can be cut back to return the following year if not killed by cold.
The floral bracts are hot pink, complimented by the tiny gold flowers protruding from within. Given the popularity of this plant, we might expect new colours to introduced into this line in the future. It has been introduced in Australia but it may be still hard to find here.
Gomphrena Pink Zazzle™
Also hot pink, this new hybrid is smaller and more compact than Fireworks, with fuzzy leaves. Large flowers, good branching and daylength-neutral flowering are key features being promoted in addition to all-round toughness .
Another new release, this is the first vegetatively propagated Gomphrena series. These hybrids are touted as having "unique texture, mounding habit and continuous flowering" 
It's unlikely that Pink Zazzle and Pinball are yet available in Australia, but gardeners may wish to keep an eye out for these and other new varieties in coming years.
There are many species native to Australia, with some attempt made to introduce selections into commercial trade. These include G. leontopodioides 'Empress', G. leontopodioides 'Balboa' and G. flaccida 'Pink Gem'. Gomphrena canescens is another species with ornamental potential.
While these have yet to achieve widespread popularity, it's possible that they might get fresh attention with the surge of interest in the genus. Furthermore, these and other Australian natives could also be a source of useful traits in future hybridisation programs.
A review of garden gomphrenas wouldn't be complete without mention of the common weed G. celosioides. It's a low-growing, drought tolerant pest plant with a white infloresence of a form typical of the genus.
References and further reading
For more background information see the list of links on www.calyx.com.au/gomphrena.html