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Gardening Articles: Edibles :: Vegetables

Amaranths: Ancient and Modern (page 2 of 5)

by David Cavagnaro

Decorative Amaranths

Capitalizing on the tendency of A. tricolor toward vivid colors, gardeners and plant breeders have created some of the most brilliant foliage plants of any kind. Unlike species of amaranths more noted for their flowers, A. tricolor bears its flowers inconspicuously where the leaf stems meet the plant stem, so the show is all in the foliage. In addition to decorative and cooking uses, you can use A. tricolor varieties as a brilliant edible garnish to perk up other dishes.

Thomas Jefferson grew 'Joseph's Coat', the oldest variety in America, at Monticello. First sprouting willowlike green leaves, 'Joseph's Coat' explodes into flaming yellow and red leaves at maturity. A similar variety, 'Early Splendor', has solid red leaves. The most popular new variety is a Japanese creation called 'Illumination'. At 4 feet, the plants produce a rosette of large leaves the size and shape of poinsettia leaves in sizzling red blushed with gold. For those who love hot color combinations, these decorative amaranths outpace all other plants.

The oldest of the decorative species in European history is A. caudatus, mentioned in sixteenth-century herbals and sold as early as 1810. Its ropelike wine red tresses earned it the sensible common name tassel flower. But like other inheritances from the dim mists of time, it's the more evocative, if enigmatic, names that stick: love-lies-bleeding is the favorite. Or how about discipline des religieuses, which translates as nuns' whip? By late twentieth century standards, that name may not conjure a pretty picture, but it's a memorable one of the ropelike flowers in use.

The plant also caught the eye of William Wordsworth, who wrote a poem about the myth of Venus and Adonis involving love-lies-bleeding in 1845. But it has fallen so far from favor that Sunset's Western Garden Book refers to it as "a curiosity rather than a pretty plant," an assessment with which I heartily disagree.

Love-lies-bleeding is now joined by a green-flowered lookalike, 'Viridis', an outstanding garden complement that's also favored by flower arrangers. The A. tricolor hybrid 'Elephant Head' (sometimes listed as A. gangeticus) is 4 to 5 feet tall and produces bulky, upright burgundy spikes with a distinct elephant-trunk shape.

From the grain amaranth species, A. hypochondriacus, come two new showy dwarfs, 'Green Thumb' and 'Pygmy Torch', that are less than 3 feet tall and have green and red branched flower clusters, respectively. Showy to the end, they also produce tasty green leaves when young, and useful grain when mature.

The A. cruentus hybrid known as 'Red Cathedral' (or as A. paniculatus or simply 'paniculatus') holds a special place in my heart as a decorative plant because the entire multibranched plant -- leaves, stalks, and flower heads -- is a deep, rich burgundy. The form grows upright to 4 feet or taller; other strains of the same plant are a bit shorter and more branched.

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