Amaranth is an ancient, drought-tolerant, high protein grain that thrives in alkaline soil.
My first experience with amaranth was disbelief, when someone told me you could pop tiny amaranth seeds like popcorn. They were correct. [Did you know that you can also pop wheat, rice, millet, sorghum, barley, and quinoa? It’s true.]
Cousin to pigweed, amaranth is a pseudocereal. Pseudocereals are grains used as cereals but are not members of the grass family. Quinoa and buckwheat are pseudocereals.
How amaranth grows
Amaranth plants are able to fix atmospheric nitrogen, the same way legumes do, which helps these plants to grow rapidly, even in poor soil. Seeds germinate in only 3 to 5 days, under ideal conditions. Plants grow best in sunny locations, spaced 8 to 10 inches apart.
Amaranth branches little or not at all, putting all their efforts into striking seed heads. These upright flower spikes become weighted down with an abundance of white, brown, black, green, red, purple, or pink seeds, depending on the species.
Native to Central and South America, people started growing amaranth around the same time corn was domesticated, but amaranth only uses half the water needed by corn. A green, prostrate variety of amaranth, the seabeach amaranth, once found in abundance on Long Island’s sand dunes, is now one of the most threatened plants on Earth.
The name amaranth comes to us from the Greek words for unfading flower. Aside from amaranth’s unfading flowers, you would be hard pressed to find a more confusingly diverse group of plants. Botanists and plant geneticists are still trying to sort it out. All we need to know, at this point, is that amaranth plants fall into one of three categories: those grown for looks, greens, or grains.
A single amaranth plant can produce over 2 pounds of seeds. Amaranthus caudatus, A. cruentus, and A. hypochondriacus are the best choice for grain production. These seeds are easy to harvest, easy to cook, and they readily self-sow an area. As autumn approaches, those stunning flowers will have transformed into seed-covered spikes, coveted by finches and other seed-eaters. If you rub a flower head between your hands and the seeds come away easily, it is time to harvest, thresh, and winnow your crop.
To harvest amaranth grain, cut off all ripe seed heads and place them on a clean bedsheet. You can wait until they dry, which makes the job more prickly, or you can thresh the seed right away. [To thresh means to remove grain from a plant.] To thresh amaranth, rub fresh seed heads vigorously between your hands, or walk on dried seed heads covered with another bedsheet, dislodging the seeds in either case. If you opted to work with fresh amaranth, the seeds will need a few protected days to dry. After threshing, you can sift your amaranth through a screen, to remove some of the chaff. Chaff is the inedible seed hull. You can also try using a blow dryer to whoosh the chaff away, just be sure to use the cool setting.
Amaranth leaves, stems, and roots
If you prefer growing amaranth as a vegetable, you will want to plant Amaranthus cruentus, A. blitum, A. dubius, or A. tricolor. Popular in dishes from Africa, Greece, India, Malaysia, and China, amaranth’s vegetative parts are cooked the same way as many other greens and they can be used fresh, in salads. In fact, many people grow vegetative amaranth to fill the dietary void caused by spinach’s tendency to bolt in summer.
Amaranth pests and diseases
Being so well suited to drought conditions, too much moisture can lead to damping off disease, so proper spacing and weed removal are important for young plants. Flea beetles, amaranth weevils, and tarnished plant bugs are the most common pests of amaranth.
Amaranth as a weed
Because of its rapid growth and heavy seed production, unwanted amaranth species are considered invasive and noxious weeds. Amaranthus albus, A. blitoides, A. hybridus, A. palmeri, A. powellii, A. retroflexus, A. spinosus, A. tuberculatus, and A. viridis should be avoided. Just so you know, A. palmeri is glyphosate resistant, and, research has shown that, when grown near soybeans, it can reduce soybean crop by 17 to 68%.
Whether you grow amaranth as an ornamental or food, this sturdy, attractive plant can bring bright colors to your landscape.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!