You may have seen highly-touted amaranth listed as an ingredient on a box of cereal or in baked goods, such as bread, pasta, and crackers. Botanically a pseudo-grain rather than a true grain, such as wheat and rye, amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) has been grown for its tiny, nutritious seeds for thousands of years in Central America, India, Africa, and China. The Aztecs, who called amaranth huauhtli, used it as food and in religious ceremonies. They mixed the seeds with honey and occasionally human blood to render images of deities for worship. Amaranth nearly disappeared from the region after this practice was forbidden by the Spanish in the 15th century.
Five centuries later, during the 1970s, interest in growing amaranth gained traction because of its healthful attributes — amaranth is high in protein and fiber — and today a few thousand acres of the crop are sown annually in the United States. The seeds of the plants are harvested in fall, and then they’re cleaned, sorted, and packaged for sale as a food that’s cooked much like quinoa (a relative of amaranth). Some amaranth grain is milled into flour. Amaranth doesn’t contain gluten, so it’s becoming increasingly popular among people with gluten intolerance and celiac disease. As a bonus, amaranth grains can be heated until they pop, much like corn kernels. In Mexico, the popped seeds are mixed with honey and other foods, such as chocolate and nuts, for a tasty snack called alegría. You can try our nutty breakfast alternative to white-flour pancakes.
Amaranth has another edible advantage: the leaves can be harvested as a vegetable. You can pick them as microgreens as soon as they sport two sets of true leaves, or you can wait and harvest baby leaves for fresh salads. Older leaves may be enjoyed steamed, sautéed, or baked in a variety of dishes, in the same way you would use spinach, beet greens, and Swiss chard.
Home gardeners can easily grow amaranth for grain and microgreens. Amaranth needs plenty of sunlight to be at its most productive, so you should choose a site with a minimum of six hours of full sun. This is a crop that likes the heat! The soil should be loose, not too heavy with clay particles, and have a pH in the range of 6.5 to 7.5. Amaranth will not grow well in consistently damp plots, so be sure drainage is good in the chosen location. Amaranth is drought-tolerant after it’s established and requires little supplementary water unless your climate is very arid.
The soil doesn’t need to be especially fertile — in fact, too much nitrogen (especially for amaranth grown as grain) will cause the plants to become leggy and difficult to harvest. Amend the soil with a light application of compost when preparing the planting site, but don’t worry about adding any other fertilizer later on.
Sow amaranth seed directly into warm soil in late May or early June in most regions. Amaranth germinates in 7 to 14 days at a minimum ambient temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Amaranth is an annual and grows very rapidly, but if your frost-free season is short and you’re eager to grow it for grain, you can step up the process by starting the seeds indoors in late April. Don’t forget to harden off tender seedlings before transplanting outdoors in late spring.
Grain amaranth species tend to grow fairly large, and many will top out at a height of 5 to 7 feet. Cultivars grown for use as leaf vegetables are usually harvested when they reach a height of 1 to 2 feet. Space individual plants a minimum of 5 to 6 inches apart (commercial growers usually increase the crop density and space plants 3 inches apart). You can always thin them, and eat the thinnings.
Amaranth is susceptible to many of the same pests as other vegetables. Slugs are a common predator — if you’re not too squeamish, you can remove them by hand-picking and dropping them in a bucket of salted water in early morning. Aphids are another potential problem, but you can easily dispatch them with strong blasts of water from the garden hose or an application of insecticidal soap. Flea beetles may be deterred by installing a floating row cover after the plants have sprouted.
Root rot can also affect amaranth, but you can combat it by regulating water use. (Sadly, little can be done if the growing season is cool and rainy.) Damping off can be an issue in newly-emerged seedlings, so select a site with good drainage, be sure plants are watered judiciously, and offer proper air circulation. This may include the practice of spacing plants out more in rows so the foliage is not so dense.
There are at least 50 species of the genus Amaranthus, including some grown primarily for ornamental use. The common garden and lawn denizen, redroot pigweed (A. retroflexus) is a member of the genus. Thankfully, its propensity to spread isn’t shared by all amaranth species.
One of the most commonly grown and top-producing grain cultivars is ‘Burgundy’ ( A. hypochondriacus), which has dark purple leaves, red flowers, and white seeds. ‘Hopi Red Dye’ (A. cruentus) is a versatile heirloom amaranth — the flowers produce a deep red dye, and the plants supply large quantities of black seeds that are excellent as a grain. Due to the brilliant red color of its seedlings, ‘Hopi Red Dye’ is also prized as a microgreen. Certain to turn heads is the fascinating A. tricolor ‘Elephant Head,’ a cultivar that was brought to the United States in the 1800s and is known for its gargantuan upright burgundy seedheads that resemble elephant trunks — beautiful and chock-full of seeds for harvest.
The seeds of most grain amaranths are tiny, ranging from 1/25- to 1/16-inch in diameter, and a single plant can produce up to 100,000 seeds! It’s important to time the harvest so the plants don’t drop seed onto the planting site, which would encourage innumerable volunteers the following spring. Be sure to harvest amaranth seeds on a dry, warm day, because picking in cool, damp conditions may contribute to rot before you get a chance to use the seed. Most amaranth cultivars are harvestable 100 to 120 days after sowing. If you gently shake a seedhead and seeds easily fall off, you’ll know you’ve chosen the right time to harvest. Use bypass pruners or sharp scissors to cut off the seedheads, and place them on a large, raised-edge baking sheet lined with newspaper. Allow the seedheads to sit in a dry spot indoors for up to a week. Don’t expose them to moisture or cool temperatures. After the seedheads have completely dried, shake the seed into the pan. Store the harvested dried seed in glass jars for up to six months in a refrigerator or in a dry location out of direct sunlight.
Certain cultivars of amaranth are especially desirable for use as a vegetable crop due to superior leaf taste, texture, and color. A pop of color can be important if you’re using amaranth as a microgreen or in a salad mix, especially for restaurant use. Try delicious A. tricolor ‘Red Leaf,’ with its thick burgundy foliage, or A. tricolor ‘Joseph’s Coat,’ which has striking red, green, and yellow leaves.
Amaranth cultivars grown mainly as ornamentals are true showstoppers in the garden, with brilliant color and feathery flower plumes. Look for gorgeous A. caudatus ‘Green Tails,’ which has bright green drooping flower plumes, or the well-known A. caudatus ‘Love-Lies-Bleeding’ — its deep red flower plumes are an absolute standout in hanging baskets.
Sheryl Normandeau is a freelance writer and homesteader from Calgary, Alberta. You can follow Sheryl’s gardening adventures on her blog, www.FloweryProse.com
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