If you spend a lot of time hanging out in health food stores, sampling unique grains and greens, you may have met amaranth before. The amaranth plant is a delicious species, with a rich history in variety of cultures.
All About Amaranth
The Aztecs devoured amaranth, known to them as huauhtil. It made up over 70% of the average Aztec’s diet. But the Aztecs weren’t the only culture to embrace this wonder plant. It’s grown in Nepal, India, China, Greece, and sub-Saharan Africa. We know Amaranth today under a variation of the Greek name, amarantos, or “un-fading”.
Wow: a grain that sustains a healthy, un-fading life. Sounds like something I’d like in my garden. Though to be honest, what really drew me to the amaranth plant is its folk name: pigweed. That’s right, this healthy dual-purpose plant is often grown as pig fodder.
Amaranth is full of healthy carbohydrates, plant-based fats, protein, vitamins, and minerals, and is a healthy plant for humans and pigs alike. It’s good to know that while you’re eating your amaranth green omelet, the garden is full of food you can share with hungry piglets!
Amaranth comes in rich shades of pink and lavender. Additionally, there are white and tricolor varieties available. Try planting common, red amaranth for a basic, edible beauty. Soon, you’ll want to bring in some variety with rarer cultivars. Joseph’s Coat amaranth (Amaranthus tricolor), for example, is a delightful variegated option. Like Joseph’s coat of many colors, this amaranth is a stunner.
Mexican grain amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) is commonly grown just for grains, but its leaves are just as tasty as other varieties. Don’t let labels limit your options!
Tall purple amaranth (Amaranthus blitum) looks wildy beautiful and deeply nourishing. This is a plant that feeds your eyes as much as your body.
Planting a few varieties of amaranth in your garden is a great way to bring height and visual interest to an otherwise conventional vegetable garden. Common amaranth often grows up to two feet tall; while specialty varieties, like the Giant Orange amaranth can grow over 8 feet tall.
Amaranth is not a fussy plant, it grows like a weed with little help. In fact, some amaranth varieties are considered weeds because of their ability to thrive with little attention. They also readily self seed, which means you can plant amaranth one year and discover a bonus crop the year after.
Though it’s a self-sufficient plant, there are plenty of ways to give your seeds the best start in life.
Climate and Soil
Amaranth plants like warm growing environments, so plant seeds after the soil has warmed. Because it’s an annual, you can grow amaranth in zones 2–11. But wait to sow amaranth seeds until the danger of frost is over. You can start seeds indoors about 6-8 weeks before your last expected frost as well. If you’re in zones 5–2, this is a great way to have a successful amaranth harvest before winter creeps back in.
Amaranth plants grow well in average, well-drained soil. They’re drought tolerant, but try to keep the soil moist, especially when your plants are young and tender.
Sow your amaranth seeds early in the growing season, since the plant will rarely produce flowers earlier than three months past planting. If you’re growing for grain, you’ll need to plant with enough time for amaranth to flower and then seed, which is often over 100 days after planting.
Plant the seeds in warm soil and cover them with a thin layer of compost. Keep the soil moist as the seed germinate, which can happen anywhere from 3 to 15 days after planting.
If you’re planting indoors, wait to transplant until after all fear of frost has passed. Amaranth seedling are not frost hardy. Keep them in their pots until you’re confident the nights are warm enough for them.
Tending & Troubles
While your amaranth plants will appreciate a balanced application of light fertilizer midway through the growing season, they’re otherwise low maintenance. Amaranth is rarely troubled by insect invasions, and is barely bothered by disease.
Occasionally, an especially humid summer may cause your plant some mildew issues. In very wet weather, amaranth can struggle with powdery mildew. If your plants start showing signs of mildew, mix up a batch of DIY fungicide.
Add just under 1 tablespoon of baking soda and 1/2 a teaspoon of liquid castile soap to a gallon of water. Shake well to allow the baking soda to dissolve completely. On a cloudy day, spritz it lightly on affected leaves. Water your plants thoroughly a day or two before using this spray, so that they’re healthy and full of moisture.
You can also use a spray of neem oil and water to control mildew. A mixture of 2.5 tablespoons of neem oil per gallon of water is usually effective.
There are two harvests when it comes to the amaranth plant: leaves and grains.
You can usually start harvesting amaranth leaves within 4 weeks after sewing. Harvest the leaves when they’re young and tender for the best flavor. Just pluck the young leaves from the plants and enjoy. As long as you leave a few young leaves to continue growing, amaranth greens can grace your table all summer long.
These greens taste a bit like spinach, but with a deeper flavor and a tender, melt-in-your-mouth texture that is emphasized by cooking. Eat the young leaves raw on top of salads; but cook the older greens.
Harvesting amaranth grains is a little more work than harvesting the greens. These grains ripen after the plant has flowered. You’ll know that your grains are ready to harvest when you see the flower stalks start to dry out.
Rub the aging amaranth flowers gently between your fingers. If the grains start to drop out as you rub, it’s time to cut the flower stalk. Cut the stalks a few inches below the base of the flower and hang it upside down to dry. Make sure to hang or lay a clean cloth underneath the flowers to catch falling seeds.
You can also dry your amaranth flowers on a drying rack. Keep the drying flowers away from humidity and direct light while they dry. It usually takes about 2 or 3 weeks for the flowers to dry completely.
The flower heads will become prickly when they’re dry, so handle them with care. You may want to wear gloves. After drying, it’s time to thresh out the seeds.
If the idea of threshing your own grains sounds intimidating, you’re starting with the right plant! Amaranth is considered one of the easiest grains to thresh. Just put the flowers in a paper bag and shake. The grain and the chaff will both fall from the flowers into the bag as you shake. When you’ve shaken out all the grain, sift out the chaff.
Some people sift the chaff by straining it out with a fine mesh. Mesh big enough to allow the seeds to pass through, but too small for most of the chaff, stretched over a wide mouthed jar is ideal. Others blow gently on a wide dish of threshed amaranth. The chaff—which is lighter—blows away, leaving the heavier grains in the dish.
Chickens love amaranth chaff, so make sure to share! Don’t worry if you can’t strain out all the chaff, it’s edible, though the texture is a little rougher. Your bits of leftover chaff will add a bit of extra fiber to your meals.
Amaranth greens are easy to incorporate into your meals. Like so many greens, the young leaves can top salads or tuck into sandwiches, while mature greens are delicious cooked. Sautee older amaranth greens in garlicky olive oil and pile them on beans and rice for a simple, flavorful meal.
Alternatively, if you’re a fan of spicy food, try whipping those greens into a batch of callaloo instead.
Now, amaranth grains can add delicious variety to your diet. Try using them instead of rice or wheat berries, for example. Mix it with quinoa or couscous as an unique base for curries and/or stews. Amaranth grains have a malty, nutty flavor that pairs well with sweet and savory dishes alike.
Simmer the seeds as a porridge with dried fruits, almond butter, and honey. You can even add a tablespoon or two of amaranth seeds to soups. The seeds will thicken the soup and deepen the flavor.
Roasting the seeds is another great way to add hearty proteins and healthy carbohydrates into your meals. Try sprinkling 1/4 of a cup on a tray of roasting vegetables. Drizzle with olive oil, add a few pinches of salt, and roast seeds and veggies together. The roasted amaranth will give a bit of crunch and a mellow, autumnal flavor to your roasted carrots, beets, and squashes.
Take a look at some of the many culinary ways people are using the amaranth plant. Additionally, if you have pigs or chickens, share the bounty a bit. Pigweed is for everyone.