Amaranths: Ancient and Modern

By David Cavagnaro

Amaranths are both historic and contemporary plants. Few similarly small groups of plants are as complex and diverse, both genetically and taxonomically. Even within one species, the ranges of forms and uses are remarkable: Some amaranths are pretty, and some are plain; some are big, and some are small; and some are weedy, and others aren't. Such diversity adds to the home gardener's challenge of predicting performance the first season, and perhaps that partially explains why amaranths are underutilized plants.

Your first encounter with an amaranth (whether you knew it or not) most likely was in a weedy garden. Red root pigweed, (Amaranth retroflexus), is a common garden weed coast to coast and North to South. Although the weediness of other amaranths is rarely that extreme, all share a propensity to what is kindly referred to as self-sowing. On the other hand, Janet Marinelli writes in her book, Stalking the Wild Amaranth, (Henry Holt, 1998), that seabeach amaranth (A. pumilus), once common to Long Island sand dunes, is now one of the rarest plants on the planet.

Intriguing and Versatile Plants

The name Amaranth is from the Greek amarantos (meaning which does not fade) and refers to the everlasting quality of the flowers. The ancients associated the long-lasting flowers with the steadfastness of true friendship or love.

Although I don't expect you to share my enthusiasm for these most remarkable plants automatically, I offer some advice: If you haven't grown them before, find some space in your garden this year for an amaranth. I guarantee they'll earn comments from visitors, and they won't disappoint you.

Because the taming of the genus Amaranthus has taken these ancient plants in three broad directions over the centuries -- as decorative plants, greens, or grains -- I group some of the more popular varieties by those primary uses. Broadly speaking, Amaranthus cruentus and A. hypochondriacus are grown for their seeds; A. caudatus, called love-lies-bleeding, is grown for its drooping, tassel-like flowers; and A. tricolor is grown for its brilliant leaf colors and spinachlike leaves. But neat categories like these quickly become muddled because amaranths are naturally promiscuous plants that defy pigeonholing. Here I'll describe my favorite varieties by category.

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.

Vegetable Amaranths

Varieties of A. tricolor, the so-called edible or vegetable amaranths, have been used for their leafy greens in Asia for centuries. Leaves of these heat-tolerant varieties make a nice summer substitute for cool-weather greens like spinach, and are tender enough for use raw in salads.

The first vegetable variety to become widely available in America was 'Hinn Choy', also known as tampala or Chinese spinach. Recent introductions include 'Green Leaf', 'Hijau', 'Red Leaf',and 'Merah', also called coleus-leaf amaranth. 'Merah' and 'Red Leaf' have large, crinkly green leaves with vivid purple veins. Less than 3 feet in height, these plants make colorful additions to any edible landscape.

The A. tricolor (also listed as A. gangeticus) 'Molten Fire' produces large scarlet and green leaves and a dark red seedhead but at 4 feet in height is best placed at the back of the garden.

Grain Amaranths

These plants have been staple crops since the time of the Incas and earlier in South America. They grow 6 to 9 feet tall and have tough, woody trunks. A. cruentus and A. hypochondriacus are the best grain producers, and they're also decorative, yielding giant monochromatic or bicolored plumed flower clusters in green, red, burgundy, or gold, sometimes with purple foliage or leaves that turn brilliant red as the seed matures in early autumn.

As a grain crop, amaranth has two distinct advantages over other grain crops. Nutritionally, it's similar to soybeans and especially prized for its concentration of lysine, a necessary amino acid that's scarce in most grains. Amaranth is also extremely drought-tolerant, demanding only half the water corn needs and slightly less than half the water required by wheat. Breeding work since the 1970s has yielded shorter, more productive, and more easily harvested varieties, and now amaranth grain and products can be found on most supermarket shelves.

My favorite grain varieties are deep red 'Burgundy', 'Golden Grain' (with bronze flower heads), and 'San Martin', which produces green and purple leaves and flowers.

Home gardeners have been shy to grow grain amaranth, thinking it difficult to harvest and process. Not so! After corn, it's the easiest of all grains to grow and process by hand. A patch of roughly 40 square feet yields about 3 gallons of cleaned, dried grain -- enough to last a family of four a year or more. The seeds are very tiny but long-lived. A quart of seed lasts me at least 10 years before I must buy or save more.

Though seeds of all amaranths are edible, the small, black seeds of vegetable and ornamental varieties are not as useful as grain, mostly because they are more difficult to grind. Amaranth seeds will pop somewhat like popcorn if dry-roasted in a hot pan. Roasted or ground, they make a tasty, nutty cooked cereal, either alone or added to oatmeal.

We use our amaranth, however, mostly as flour, ground in an electric or hand-cranked mill, in bread recipes, where it adds important protein and excellent taste. (Because the flour lacks gluten, amaranth is best kept to less than a quarter of the total flour called for in most bread recipes.) Amaranth flour also makes a good additive to cookie dough and other baked-dessert recipes.

Harvesting grains. Colorful flower heads appear in midsummer, gradually maturing their heavy yield of grain toward autumn. You can assess grain ripeness two ways. First, watch the birds. As the seeds mature, small-seed eaters, such as finches, will begin to take obvious (and eventually destructive) interest. Second, rub the flower heads between your fingers into the palm of your hand. When seeds shatter out easily and abundantly from most of the flower clusters, it's time to harvest. Don't wait too long, lest the wind, rain, and birds take their tolls.

Harvesting and threshing take a good part of one day, and winnowing a small part of another: not bad for a year's supply of nutritious grain! The process begins in the garden patch with a clean wheelbarrow and shears. Carefully cut all main and side-shoot seedheads and transport them by wheelbarrow to one side of a clean, discarded bedsheet.

Threshing by hand is the most time-consuming part of the process. Sitting on a 5-gallon bucket or wooden stump, I vigorously rub each seedhead between my hands, loosening the seeds, then bang them out against the bucket or stump. Hands quickly become colored from the seedheads, but the dye washes off. I much prefer threshing fresh-harvested seed to the alternative technique of drying the heads first. The prickly texture of dried amaranth precludes hand rubbing. I have threshed dried amaranth by stomping on the heads on a concrete floor, then screening them, but in that case you have to separate all parts of the seedheads, which is a bulky, prickly, and more difficult process in my opinion, even if it might be faster.

Once I've threshed all the heads, I spread out the grain, rake out most of the larger chaff, and let the threshed grain dry in the sun. (At night, I take the whole sheet, like a bag, inside.) Two or three warm days are usually sufficient for thorough drying.

When drying is complete, screening and winnowing follow. I have a hardware-cloth soil sifter (on a 2-by-4 frame) that fits on top of my wheelbarrow. I line the sifter with a piece of window screen and rub a gallon or so of seed at a time through the mesh, removing all but the seeds themselves and their papery caps. I use an old vacuum-cleaner motor to blow the chaff out of the seeds while they're still in the wheelbarrow; a fan or hair dryer would work, too, as would the ancient way of dropping seeds onto the sheet from above on a windy day. The entire cleaning process for 3 gallons seldom takes more than an hour. I store the cleaned grain in gallon jars in a cool, dry basement.

Growing Amaranth

Most gardeners in North America can grow just about any kind of amaranth. Season length may prevent success with the long-season grain varieties for gardeners in northern, short-summer areas.

Grow all kinds of amaranth the same way. In a site that receives full sun, prepare shallow furrows, about 2 feet apart as soon as all danger of frost has passed. Scatter seed in the furrows, and cover it lightly with soil; seed will sprout in three to five warm days. Once seedlings are a few inches tall, thin by cutting for spinach or salad greens until the plants are spaced 8 to 10 inches apart. Control weeds early in the season, and water if spring rains are scarce.

Fertile soil increases yield but isn't required to grow a reasonable crop. Amaranth thrives in poor soils, and here in Iowa, summer rains usually bring more than adequate moisture. In rich soils, plants may grow larger and need staking. For gardeners in arid regions, Native Seeds/SEARCH carries several drought-tolerant varieties grown for centuries by indigenous peoples of the Southwest and Mexico, largely without irrigation.

In moist climates, damping off can affect seedlings. Early thinning and good weed control reduce the problem by keeping seedlings dry and well ventilated. Flea beetles may attack young plants, and tarnished plant bugs and amaranth weevils are problems in some regions. In general, however, amaranth is nearly indestructible.

Easy to grow, good looking, practical, and versatile beyond imagination -- I can't think of another crop plant that offers so much. This year, discover the charms of these ancient plants for yourself.

Comments and discussion:
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