Amaranth, Ancient Grains, Nutritious Leaves and Exasperated Farmers

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Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) plants are a collection of approximately 75 annual species (several being perennial), with most having edible seeds, shoots and leaves. They are particularly hardy, herbaceous shrubs, growing well in a variety of conditions. This has resulted in many species being referred to as weeds, especially the varieties known as ‘pigweed’. Seed production is also very high, meaning it has the ability to spread prolifically.

Palmer Amaranth Amaranthus palmeri
Palmer Amaranth Amaranthus palmeri (Photo by Pompilid on Wikimedia Commons)

The different amaranth species feature a small variety of different leaf and flower shapes. However the most recognisable feature are the flower head clusters or ‘cymes’ which greatly resemble catkins. Typically they will grow to a maximum height of around 2 meters, although most will settle around 1 meter in height.

Of the 75 species, 10 are thought to be native only to parts of North America and Mexico. These include mat amaranth (Amaranthus blitoides) and palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri). Palmer amaranth is particularly prolific in midwestern states where farmers often battle to keep it at bay. 

Edible parts and other uses

Seeds were eaten by Native Americans, specifically the Amaranthus blitoides variety. The seeds would be eaten raw or ground into a flour and combined with other ingredients to create breads or small rolled snacks.

Within the last few decades interest has greatly increased in the cultivation of amaranth. For rural areas, or developing countries, it is a crop that provides a high quantity of protein, and compared to other crops it is thought to be easier to harvest, prepare and cook.

Amaranth Grains (Photo by Gaurav Dhwaj Khadka on Wikimedia Commons)

The leaves, shoots, and stems are also edible in a number of species, particularly palmer amaranth and common amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus). They are highly nutritious and can be used within salads, and as a leafy green within many cooked dishes.

Other edible species include Amaranthus tricolor, Amaranthus cruentus and Amaranthus blitum. These particular varieties are cultivated for their leaves within areas of Eastern Asia. The Amaranthus viridis or ‘green amaranth’ is cultivated in Greece and the leaves combined with a dressing to create a salad.

Amaranthus retroflexus
Amaranthus retroflexus (Photo by Szaga on Wikimedia Commons)

Foraging

Foraging in the midwest is a rewarding experience, and amaranth is a great plant to forage and collect. You will find it growing in a wide range of areas, from forest and field edges, to the weed patch at the end of your garden.

Generally, the more tender shoots and young leaves will be best when used raw within a salad. For cooked greens and side dishes, the larger leaves and thicker stems will become tender after boiling. 

Cautions

No species within the amaranth genus are considered poisonous. However they are often rich in nitrates, so when boiling leaves and stems the water should be discarded afterwards.

Amaranth can also contain high levels of oxalic acid. This means that those who tend to avoid spinach and similar leaved vegetables due to kidney problems should not consume too much amaranth. It can also be toxic to farm animals, as well as it being competitive to crops, making it a very loathed plant for farmers.

Did you know…

Amaranth has a long and interesting history, with evidence of the Aztecs using seeds for a large portion of their diets. From preparing the grains for drinks and foods within special rituals. To creating sweet snacks with a mix of cacao and honey. Amaranth was a very important part of their ancient diet. Even today, many cultural events within Central America and Mexico use Amaranth in their festivities. Including amaranth grains that are used to create Day of Dead (Día de Muertos) sweet treats.

Sweet skulls made from amaranth (Photo by TanyaCh Sa on Wikimedia Commons)

Conclusion

Harvesting your own amaranth leaves throughout the spring and summer months provides a great yield of produce. It is always best to pick the leaves and shoots before they begin to mature and flower. This ensures that seed production is kept at a minimum, minimizing the spread of the plant. Plus, older plants can also become a bit too tough for salads. Frequent picking will encourage new and bushy growth. Amaranth can make a fantastic alternative to greens like spinach and kale.

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Written by Hannah Sweet
Hannah is a freelance writer and graphic designer from the UK. With a penchant for travelling, photography and all things botanical, she enjoys writing about a wealth of topics and issues, from conservation and slow living, to design and travel. Learn more about her writing and design services on Upwork.com

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