Green Man Publishing

Amaranth

Amaranthus species

Introduction: In North America the amaranths are most familiar as weeds of disturbed places and are particularly common in the rich soil of vegetable gardens (is there an American vegetable garden that doesn’t have at least one kind of pigweed?) We really should pay a bit more attention to them though, as amaranth can provide not one, but two valuable crops; it can be grown either for its seed or for its leaves. In other parts of the world they are important crop plants and they could be here too.

It is estimated that amaranth has been cultivated for at least 9000 years, which would make it one of the oldest crops in the world. It reached its greatest popularity in its native South and Central America and up until the arrival of the Spanish in the 15th century it was a staple grain crop. Due to its use in various religious rituals the Spaniards considering it a symbol of pre-Christian culture and actively suppressed its cultivation.

The use of amaranth as a leaf crop slowly spread to other parts of the world and it was adopted by subsistence farmers in Africa, Asia and Europe. In recent years it has been rediscovered as a grain crop and cultivation is increasing around the world.

Amaranths even find their way into the ornamental garden and some varieties (notably Love-Lies-Bleeding) are grown purely for their beauty (these too are edible). The appearance of the various species ranges from bizarre to quite attractive to downright spectacular and the latter are certainly very ornamental.

Crop value: Amaranth is sometimes referred to as a pseudo-cereal (as are buckwheat and quinoa), as it is grown as a grain crop, but isn’t a member of the grass family. It produces a nutritious, high protein grain that has considerable potential as a garden scale grain crop. It is one of the most practical home grain crops, as it is nutritious, tasty, easy to grow and requires minimal processing to make it edible.

About Amaranth  

Seed facts
Germ temp: 50 (60 – 80) 90˚F 
Germ time: 5 – 14 days
Seeds per ounce: 30,000
Viability: 7 years
Germination percentage: 70%+
Weeks to grow transplants: 4  

Planning facts
Hardiness: Tender
Temp for growth: 60 (70 – 85) 95˚F
Plants per person: 10
Plants per sq ft: 1 grain              
                            1 – 4 leaf
Transplants:
Start: 2 wks before last frost
Plant out: 2 wks after last frost
Direct sow: 2 wks after last frost
Succession sow: every 6 weeks
Plant height: 2 – 8 ft
Plant diameter: 1 – 2 ft
 
Harvest facts
Harvest: 95 – 150 days seed  
              30 to 60 days for greens
Harvest period: 4 weeks seed   
                        4 – 12 wks leaf
Yield: Grain 1 oz / sq ft  
         Leaf 1 lb / sq ft.
Yield per plant: 2 oz (seed)
                          4 – 16 oz (leaf)  

In warmer parts of the world (especially in the tropics) the amaranths are very important as a heat tolerant, easy to grow leaf crop. This is known variously as Chinese spinach, hinn choy, tampala, calaloo and by many more local names.

This is a rather neglected leaf crop for American growers and really deserves to be more widely used. If you are looking for a warm weather substitute for spinach, this is your best bet in most places. It is tasty, tender, easy to grow, very productive, fast growing and requires almost no work. I got into it because my garden was full of  volunteers from a previous grain crop and I had to do something with them.

Ease of growing: Plants don’t come much easier to grow than amaranth, both as a grain and a leaf crop. It is an outstanding summer green vegetable, which naturally takes over as the cooler season crops fade. In recent years it has become my default summer potherb, as it is pretty much always available. 

Nutritional content

Leaves: These are high in vitamins A and C, as well as protein, iron and calcium. They are significantly more nutritious than spinach, to which they are often compared

As with spinach, amaranth leaves contain oxalic acid (though in smaller amounts), which can react with calcium and make it less available to the body. It may also contribute to the formation of kidney stones, so anyone prone to them should probably avoid the leaves (and spinach). Fortunately this is not a significant problem to anyone with a reasonable intake of calcium. If used as a potherb, a lot  of the oxalic acid will be leached out in the cooking water.

Wild pigweed often ends up in books on poisonous wild plants, not only because of the aforementioned oxalic acid, but because of its habit of accumulating nitrates when growing in fields where nitrate fertilizer has been used. This can cause it to become mildly toxic. The cultivated crop can accumulate nitrate too (as can spinach), so be careful not to give them too much nitrogen.

This compulsion to classify everything as poisonous (even one of the most important wild edible greens) is a good example of how disconnected we have become from the natural world and where our food comes from.

Seeds: These are rich (up to 16%) in high quality protein and have a better amino acid balance than almost any other common vegetable protein. They even contain the lysine and methionine so often lacking in grain proteins. They also contain about 20% oil, along with the minerals calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.

Amaranth seed is an outstanding source of energy, with around 1700 calories per pound.

The seed also contains squalene, a powerful antioxidant which is also found in olive oil. It has been suggested that this substance might be the reason for the low cancer rates in those who eat Mediterranean diets.

Climate: Amaranth is a tropical plant and likes warm, moist, sunny weather (ideally 70˚F – 85˚F). Like corn and sunflower it uses C4 photosynthesis, which makes it particularly efficient in hot, sunny climates.

When grown as a grain crop amaranth doesn’t need a lot of water and it is often grown commercially in warm dry climates. It has been grown in desert areas with as little as 8˝ of water. In some cases drought may induce early flowering, which means an earlier crop.

Soil     

pH 5.5 (6.4) 7.0

Leaf Amaranth can be grown almost anywhere, even soils that are too poor and dry for most crops, but will be most productive on a rich, moisture retentive, well-drained soil. It doesn’t mind acid soil.

Leaf crops need a good supply of nitrogen (and respond by getting bigger), but too much can be a problem as the leaves can accumulate nitrates and become mildly toxic.

Grain Amaranth needs a well-drained and fertile soil (similar to that for corn) to produce a good crop.

Soil preparation: Amaranth doesn’t need a great deal of nitrogen or phosphorus, though it does like potassium. The plants respond to extra nitrogen by growing bigger, though this doesn’t always mean more grain.

Planning

Where: Amaranth thrives in warm sunny weather, so if your garden isn’t very warm you need to plant it in a sunny sheltered spot. It doesn’t do very well in the shade, (though you might get a few edible leaves out of it, that you otherwise wouldn’t have).

Amaranth is such an independent plant, it is worth trying as a grain crop anywhere that is warm enough.

When: I find my garden tells me when it is time to plant amaranth because volunteers (and amaranth weeds) start to appear all over the place.

Amaranth needs warm weather to get started, ideally 70˚F or higher in the day and no lower than 60˚F at night. Don’t plant it until at least two weeks after the last frost date. If your growing season is short, don’t wait too long to plant a grain crop, otherwise it may flower prematurely when the days get shorter (see Day length below). Also fall frosts may arrive before it is fully mature. This is one situation where you might want to start it inside.

Day length: Amaranth originated in the tropics and is short day length sensitive. It is important to keep this in mind and plant by June at the latest. These plants will be the most productive because they will wait until they have accumulated enough food reserves.

If you plant too late in the summer, the short day length will cause the plants to flower while they are still quite small and you won’t get much of a harvest (of grain or leaves).

Succession sowing: In the early part of the growing season you can make plantings of leaf amaranth, every 3 – 4 weeks.

Planting

Using transplants: In warm weather amaranth germinates and grows so vigorously that there is little to be gained from starting it inside. However if the growing season is very short, you might start a grain crop indoors. It does best when planted in cell packs, soil blocks or plug trays. Plant it out when the transplants are about 3˝ high and the soil has warmed up.

Direct sowing: Amaranth is normally direct sown, by broadcasting or planting in rows. The seed is small and it is easy to sow a lot of plants at one time, but you usually don’t need many. If you are sowing a large area you might want to mix the small seed with sand to make sowing easier.

The seed is ideally planted ¼ – ½˝ deep, which means either covering the broadcast seed with a thin layer of cover soil, planting in shallow furrows or raking the soil after planting.

The seeds are small and the newly emerged seedlings are quite delicate initially. Crusting or capping of the soil can make it difficult for the seedlings to emerge.

Spacing

Grain: If you are growing amaranth for grain you will probably want to plant a fairly large area and will usually plant in rows.

The spacing will vary depending upon what you want to achieve.

Typically you want the plants to be spaced 12˝ – 18˝ apart in offset rows. If you want to minimize the amount of seed you plant, you can plant them 12˝ apart, in rows 30˝ apart. This will result in fewer, but larger and more productive plants.

In large mechanized operations, plants may be grown in densely packed beds as close as 4˝ apart. Apparently this makes for more uniform head size and ripening, which is good for machine harvesting.

Leaf: If you are growing in a bed you can broadcast the seeds and then harvest thin (eat the thinnings) until the plants stand 6˝ – 8˝ apart.

You can also plant in rows, spacing the plants ½˝ apart in the row, with 18˝ between the rows. The plant rows are then gradually harvest thinned to a final spacing of about 6˝ apart (eat the plants as you remove them).

Care

Amaranths are very independent plants with a lot of wild vigor and they don’t usually require much care. Just put the seed in the soil and stand back; they will do the rest.

Weed: Amaranth is essentially a weed itself, so doesn’t generally have much of a problem with weeds. You should keep the bed free of weeds until the plants have all emerged and keep weeded until they get to 8 – 10 inches in height. After this they can compete against almost anything.

Weeding a direct sown crop can present a problem because crop amaranth looks the same as weed amaranth. The best solution to this is to plant in rows, so you can safely remove any plant that isn’t in a clearly defined row. The purple tinted varieties aren’t too difficult to identify, as even the seedlings have purple tinted leaves.

Fertilizing: If leaf amaranth plants are being harvested repeatedly they will benefit from an occasional dose of compost tea. Not too much nitrogen though, as you don’t want them to accumulate toxic nitrates.

Water: Grain amaranth is relatively drought tolerant (it wilts readily to save water, but also recovers rapidly). However don’t let it get too dry as this may reduce the final harvest. Too much water can also be a problem, as it can cause the roots to rot.

Leaf amaranth should always have moist soil to maximize productivity.

Mulch: If water is limited you should mulch the plants to conserve moisture and deter moisture robbing weeds.

Problems

Pests: The succulent leaf amaranths are a favorite of slugs and snails and young seedlings may be destroyed if not protected. Flea beetles will often chew tiny holes in the leaves of young plants. Generally they are pretty resilient though and can tolerate quite a lot of leaf damage with minimal effect on yields.

I have encountered leaf miners on grain amaranth, while commercial farmers sometimes have to deal with army worms, blister beetles and tarnished plant bugs.

Diseases: Amaranth is not very susceptible to disease problems and the worst I have seen has been damping off (which hardly counts). Apparently curly top virus can also be a problem in commercial plantings (it is commonly transmitted by leafhoppers).

Lodging: Plants loaded down with a heavy seed head will sometimes fall over (especially after heavy rain or wind), in which case you may need to support them. If you plant them fairly plant close together, they will keep each other fairly uniform in size and will mutually support each other.

Pollination: Amaranth is monoecious, with separate male and female flowers on the same plant. It is self-fertile and wind pollinated, so you don’t have to even think about this.

Harvest

Grain:

When: It takes from 3 – 5 months from planting the seed to fully ripe seed heads. As harvest time approaches, examine the flower heads regularly for ripe seed, by rubbing the flowers between your fingers or palms to loosen any ripe seed. You can tell if seed is ripe by biting it; a fully ripe seed will be firm rather than chewy. This is important because it will start to drop soon afterward.

Often the plants will keep on ripening more seed until they are killed by frost (if you leave them alone to do it). If the plants begin to wither or frost threatens, gather the whole heads.

How: If you only have a few plants you can bend the heads over a bucket and rub them to loosen the seed.

If you have a lot of plants, cut the whole heads and lay them on a tarp in the shade to dry. Then lay another sheet on top of the dry heads and beat, crush or walk on them to loosen the seeds. The bristly flower/seed heads can be hard on the hands so it’s a good idea to wear gloves.

Other than winnowing to remove debris, the seed needs no other preparation for eating. It is very important that it be dried thoroughly for storage, otherwise it may mold. Small quantities of seed can be dried in a paper grocery bag.

Vegetable: You can harvest the leaves any time they are big enough to be worthwhile (anywhere from 3 – 6 weeks after sowing). Start by harvest thinning extra plants when they are about 8˝ tall, to get them out of the bed and leave the remaining plants at the desired spacing.

Once the plants are growing strongly, you can harvest individual leaves or whole growing tips. The plants have strong apical dominance, so pinching out the top makes the plant branch out and get bushier with new growth.

In some tropical home gardens, harvesting of leaves doesn’t start until the plants are 4 – 5 feet high. Then the tops are pinched out and eaten. After this the side shoots are harvested, as they reach useful size (you can harvest every week or two). Any flower buds are removed promptly and eaten with their surrounding leaves. By harvesting frequently and preventing them flowering, the plants can be made to produce edible shoots for months.

When the plants eventually bolt, you can save the seed for planting next year. You might also scatter some around the garden to encourage volunteers (don’t overdo it though, or it may become a real weed).

Storage: The leaves wilt quickly once cut, so it is best to harvest them fresh and use promptly. They can be kept in a plastic bag in the fridge for a few days. If you have a large harvest you can cook the leaves like spinach and freeze them.

The grain should be dried to 11% moisture before storing in a rodent proof container.

After harvest: Heavily cropped leaf plants will benefit from a liquid feed of seaweed, applied to their roots. Don’t use compost or manure tea, as you will be harvesting again fairly soon and don’t want pathogenic bacteria on the leaves.

Seed saving: This is pretty simple, just treat it like a grain crop and take seed from the best plants. Amaranth is monoecious, with separate male and female flowers on the same plant. They cross-pollinate easily, so it’s best to have only one variety flowering at a time (in theory they should be separated by 1000 feet). Take seed from at least 5 plants to maintain some genetic variability.

The grain types produce a ton of seed, but the leaf varieties can be very variable. I have grown types that produced a lot and others that produced a mere sprinkle.

Unusual growing ideas

Volunteers: Amaranth commonly self-sows and can become a weed (or useful bonus crop, depending upon your perspective). One year I let an entire bed get taken over by volunteer grain amaranth. The only thing I did was to thin out the stand, by harvesting many of the plants for greens. Some plants reached 8 feet in height and gave me as good a grain crop as if I had sown it deliberately.

Usually I use my amaranth volunteers as a mixed green leaf crop, as there isn’t enough seed to make a worthwhile grain crop.

Wild garden: You can take the volunteer idea one step further and deliberately sow the seed in patches of disturbed soil. These should be in full sun for maximum growth. I do this quite a lot and it really can be productive.

Using the weeds: If you don’t want to grow the cultivated amaranth you might think about using the weedy amaranth that is probably growing in your garden. See Pigweed in the section on edible weeds at the end of this book.

Animal feed: Amaranth is widely grown as animal feed in China and it’s said that over 100,000 acres are devoted to it.

Ornamentals: Some amaranth varieties (Love–Lies-Bleeding and Josephs Coat) are usually grown as ornamentals, but are also perfectly edible. Some of the grain varieties are positively spectacular when flowering, especially the gold and purplish red types and make lovely (but tall) specimen plants.

The leaf varieties tend to have less attractive flowers, though they often make up for this by having interesting variegated leaves.

You could use amaranth as an ornamental grain producer. Just plant it en masse for visual effect.

 Varieties:

There are about 60 species of Amaranthus, but only a handful have been cultivated to any extent. There are quite a few grain varieties available, but less leaf types.

Some botanists consider all of the species below to be variations of A. hybridus.

Grain Amaranths:

These have mostly been bred to be determinate, with one large seedhead and few side branches.  I have found all of the grain varieties to be very productive. The pale colored seed types tend to have a better flavor than the black seeded ones. Their leaves are often just as good as those of the leaf varieties.

Elephant Head – Big Purple seed heads.

Chinese Giant Orange – Tall (8 ft) with bright orange flowers.

Hatmans Giant – Tall plants with black seed.

Hopi Red – Used as a source of red dye as well as grain.

Leaf Amaranths:

The flowers of these varieties are smaller and less conspicuous than those of grain types and don’t produce as much seed. Some are occasionally grown as an ornamental.

Hinn Choy – Old Chinese variety.

Red Leaf Amaranth – Red and green leaves.

Tiger Leaf – Red and green leaves (all of the above three may be the same thing!).

Kitchen use

Grain

Amaranth differs from most cereal grains in that the seed needs no preparation (hulling, husking, threshing, etc). All you have to do is separate it from the seed head and clean it to remove debris.

The flavor of the seed can be improved by toasting, which causes it to pop like popcorn. This can be done in a hot pan in the same way as for popcorn (if it won’t pop try sprinkling a little water onto the seed).

If you have a large quantity of seed, you could try popping it in the oven. Spread it a half inch deep in a covered pan and roast it at 350°F for a half-hour. Stir occasionally to prevent it burning.

The toasted seed can be added whole to baked goods, ground to flour for baking (it’s usually mixed with wheat flour), or boiled as a kind of porridge.

The whole raw seed can be sprouted like alfalfa until about ¼˝ long and used in salads and sandwiches.

The seed can also be boiled like millet in salt water. Some people soak it in water overnight before cooking.

In Mexico the popped grain is mixed with honey or molasses to make various sweet treats.

Leaf

Amaranth leaves are tender and mildly flavored and can be very good. They can be steamed, or boiled in a small amount of water (the latter may be better as it can reduce the amount of oxalic acid they contain). Don’t cook them for more than a few minutes or they will get mushy. In Asia they are often stir-fried or used in soups. The very young leaves can be added to salads.

A good way to cook the leaves is to sauté some onion and garlic in a pan and then add the washed greens. The water sticking to the leaves is enough to cook them.

Try using the recipes described under chard and spinach. They are just as good when made with amaranth.

Horta Horta translates as weeds or wild greens and is a traditional spring peasant food in Greece. It is traditionally made from a mix of wild greens, but you can use a wide variety of greens and weeds from the garden.   2 lb greens (these might be amaranth, chard, chicory, dandelion, kale, komatsuna, spinach, stinging nettle or any other edible greens). 1 lemon 1 cup water 2 tbsp olive oil Salt Pepper   Wash the greens to remove any soil or debris, then chop into pieces (discard any tough bits) and cook with a cup of water to your taste (don’t over-cook). Drain off the water and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of the lemon and salt and pepper. It is good eaten warm immediately, or cold the next day.  

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