Amaranthus, King of “Grains”

Amaranth, pigweed

Amaranthus spp.

Among the many horrible things Europeans did to natives of the “new world” to suppress them, and ultimately attempt to render their culture extinct was to separate them from their food. Though a few new world crops were allowed into the cornucopia of everyone living in the new world, many crops were forbidden. Amaranth was one of those contraband crops. Among many tribes, especially in tropical and subtropical America, amaranth was the most important staple food, and a central element in native religion. 

Diabetes, a huge epidemic among native people, was unknown before Europeans imposed their ways of eating and living on the indigenous people. Many of the original native foods were balanced and among those balanced foods was Amaranth.

Folk taxonomy puts Amaranth with the grains. But amaranth is not a grain, technically. Grain is food derived from grass crops, plants in the Poaceae. Amaranth is not the least bit related to grasses. It is in it’s own family, the Amaranthaceae. But it functions as a grain, since the part we most often eat is the seed. But wait, the foliage of amaranth is also edible, as a great summer green. Also highly nutritious, amaranth is one of our warm season saviors: when many other greens are not available (because most of them are cool-season) the young tender foliage of amaranth is a god-send. This is accentuated by the fact that many varieties/species of amaranth are brilliantly colored: reds, oranges, yellows, and even the greens are nice and deeply or brightly shaded.

Amaranth seeds looks similar to quinoa, a distant relative, but much smaller.

There are many species of amaranth, and all are probably edible, though some lend themselves better to seed production, while others are better suited for greens. Some are mostly ornamental, though still edible. Another genus is the family, Celosia, provides edible greens as well.

Golden Giant Amaranth

Plant in spring after threat of frost is over or have a plan to protect if frost is to occur. Seeds are tiny and should be barely covered. Because they are tiny, you will probably need to do lots of thinning. This is fine because amaranth seedlings are delicious microgreens, and incredibly nutritious.

How far you plant them apart depends on the species/varieties you choose. Many amaranths get HUGE, so be sure to space them out accordingly and put on the north edges of plant beds so as not to shade out other crops. Use like corn, as a shelter for the roots of vining crops like squash, cucumber, melons, watermelons, etc. Grows well with peas too, just like corn, and provides them with a substrate to climb on.

Amaranth Greens (Red Amaranth)

Plant in full sun, and feed as you see fit. This crop will not need a lot of care, but if you put some care into it, you will be rewarded. With all crops it is always a good practice to mulch roots, to preserve water and keep roots insulated from summer heat.

Harvest new, tender foliage for greens. To harvest seed, wait until flower heads have matured. Snip seed/flower stalks off and store in paper bag. Seed will need to be winnowed from chaff, which blows away with the slightest breeze (you can use a fan at the lowest setting).

The edible weed, Amaranthus palmeri.

When you grow amaranth, unless you have a LOT of land, grow one type at a time. This species is wind-pollinated. This also means controlling the weedy Amaranthus palmeri in your lot, and maybe using some methods for blocking wind from outside your space to avoid unintentional hybrids. This, of course, is only important if you are saving seed.

A wild species, Amaranthus palmeri, or pigweed, is also edible, and grows all over this country. Seen as a weed by many, it is a delicious green; free food for the taking.

Amaranth grown as a microgreen.

Many seed sources make amaranth available. One of my favorites, Baker’s Creek has a nice selection. If you are a member of Seed Savers Exchange, there are many amaranth and celosia species available. Native Seed/SEARCH has lots of heirloom native amaranth crops.

Amaranth as a grain is just becoming popular in health food stores, but deserves to be the star of agriculture. Long considered a weed by many farmers, amaranth is way more productive and nutritious than corn. What is more, amaranth has almost no serious pests to manage, uses a lot less water than corn, and can thrive in barren soils, though it will do much better in garden soil. The ratio of protein to carbohydrates is also much healthier than almost all other grain crops.

Montana Popping Amaranth

Amaranth is one of those crops that could render the whole GMO, pesticide debate mute. It needs little breeding, and no extreme genetic modification or pesticide use to be able to feed the hungry of the world. Instead of putting all the work we do into a crop that isn’t even healthy for us, or our livestock (corn), why not try a crop that practically grows itself and is healthier for us? Of course, this would force many business to reconsider everything they have invested in. But when the health of the world population, our soils and water supply, and resources in general are at stake, I could care less if some businesses need to reconsider and re-appropriate their resources. It is the least they can do for a public that has made them rich anyway, no?

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