Amaranth, Red Spike (Amaranthus cruentus)
Amaranth, Foxtail Amaranth
About This Plant
Red Spike Amaranth features dark red upright foliage with plumes of gracefully arched, feathery flowerheads. Growing up to 60 inches high, this plant is a fascinating specimen in both gardens and flower arrangements alike. Plume varieties of Amaranth grow mostly upright and form a giant, broomstick like stalk that is topped by a giant plume that is anywhere from 24-36” high. They are stunning to see.
It is much more than just a highly prized ornamental however. Historically, the use of Amaranth as an ornamental plant is a relatively recent development. It’s origins go back many thousands of years. Known as Huaútli by the Aztecs, it once supported a vast civilization and was considered a divine plant, closely associated with the gods. It was grown as a staple crop for at least 8,000 years by Central American cultures before Spanish conquistadors outlawed its cultivation, almost eliminating it.
Called the “Food of Immortality” by the Aztecs, species of this family can be found on every continent, though most species are considered “weeds”. Both leaves and seeds of all species are edible. Its high mineral content and nutrient density, combined with its vigor and ease of growth, especially in marginalized lands, makes it considered one of the most underutilized crops and an economical source of protein, minerals, vitamin A and vitamin C. Only a dozen or so of the Amaranthus species have been cultivated by humans, selected either for their seed head or large leaf greens. Three species have been domesticated for their large seed heads: A. cruentus, A. hypochondriacus, A. caudatus. It is a gluten-free ‘pseudo-grain’, meaning it is considered a whole grain despite not being part of the Poaceae cereal family.
Consensus has not been reached whether Amaranth has two distinct origins–in Asia and the Americas–or if all Amaranth originates from the Americas. With the invasion of Central and South America by the Spanish in the 16th century, the production of grain Amaranth dwindled in the Americas. It never quite took root as a grain cultivar in Europe, though it spread quickly through Africa. Amaranth was used by midwives to bathe newborn babies. It was mixed into a paste and transformed into miniature reproductions of the child’s future attributes: a bow, an arrow, the hunter’s instruments, or perhaps a flower or an animal spirit-guide.
Culturally, the Amaranth flower has been used as a symbol of immortality since the time of ancient Greece with even its Greek-derived name meaning “one that does not wither,” or the “never-fading flower.” Such use is seen in works of poetry, fables, and songs. Amaranth is mentioned in Aesop’s Fables and Milton’s Paradise Lost. Aesop’s Fables (6th century BCE) compares the rose to the Amaranth to illustrate the difference in fleeting and everlasting beauty.
Amaranths have a great amount of genetic diversity, phenotypic plasticity, and are extremely adaptable to adverse growing conditions. It comes up readily in the garden. And it’s a showstopper.
Amaranth is a survivor, in more ways than one.
To this day, Amaranth grains are toasted much like popcorn and mixed with honey, molasses, or chocolate to make a treat called alegria–literally, “joy” in Spanish.
From Aesop’s Fables :
A Rose and an Amaranth blossomed side by side in a garden,
and the Amaranth said to her neighbour,
“How I envy you your beauty and your sweet scent!
No wonder you are such a universal favourite.”
But the Rose replied with a shade of sadness in her voice,
“Ah, my dear friend, I bloom but for a time:
my petals soon wither and fall, and then I die.
But your flowers never fade, even if they are cut;
for they are everlasting.”
Amaranth is usually planted from seeds as soon as the last frost has passed in the Spring. If you are eager for early harvest, you can start the seeds indoors four to six weeks earlier. Seeds require light to germinate, so plant seeds shallowly and keep moist. Seeds should germinate in four to ten days if temperatures are at least 70 degrees Fahrenheit. If you want to harvest the plants for seeds, it will take about 12 weeks to reach full maturity. Leaves can be harvested within a few weeks of outdoor planting.
Plant transplants or thin seedlings to about six to twelve inches apart.
Amaranths are considered among the easiest of plants to grow in agriculturally marginal lands. Once established, they withstand dry soil and they have the ability to grow at high temperatures when many other crops become unproductive. While drought resistant, they do require reasonable moisture levels for germination and also at pollination. Plant height is very dependent on soil fertility and moisture content. Amaranths can be dead-headed for continual production over a three month period. Amaranth plants will readily self-seed in the garden and it is primarily self-pollinated. Separate varieties by at least 150 ft. for pure seed. Amaranths are nitrate accumulators, so it is best to grow them without chemical fertilizers–this is especially important if they are going to be ingested.
Seed heads mature unevenly. Some early seed may be collected by “massaging” the seed heads above a bucket. To harvest later-maturing seed, wait until after a killing frost followed by a week of good drying weather to cut the seed heads. Thresh the seed heads (while wearing a dust mask), screen out the chaff, and winnow the seed. Freshly harvested seed may have a high moisture content. Spread the seed in thin layers until it has fully cured. Harvest is the most critical stage in grain Amaranth production. WIthout careful harvest techniques, it is possible to lose or damage the majority of the seed.
- A showy, highly-prized ornamental used both fresh and dried in arrangements
- A nutrient-dense food source–both leaves and seeds are edible
- Can be used to make a red dye
- Can be used for pest control–Amaranth can be planted near cucurbits as a decoy crop for cucumber beetles which are highly attracted to it
It’s important to note that while all species in this family are edible, Amaranths are nitrogen-accumulators. If grown in nitrogen-rich soil, such as in areas that have been chemically farmed, they will accumulate nitrogen in toxic levels and may cause harm to any who ingest it. Only eat organically grown Amaranth.
Both leaves and seeds are edible. Leaves can be eaten raw or cooked, as you would spinach, or added to soups and other dishes. The mild flavored leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals.
Seeds have a slightly nutty flavor. They can be used as a “grain” in porridges or added as a thickener to soups and stews. Seeds can be ground in a flour mill for a gluten-free flour alternative for baking. Seeds can be sprouted or popped like popcorn. The seed is very nutritious and contains 13-18% of a very high quality protein that is rich in the amino acid lysine. It also contains good quantities of calcium, phosphorus, iron, potassium, zinc, vitamin E and vitamin B complex. There are eight to nine grams of protein in a one cup serving of Amaranth.
To cook Amaranth seed, combine one cup of dried grain with two cups of liquid. Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, yielding 2 ½ cups of cooked grain.
Most Amaranth species are native to the Americas. A minority of species are native to Europe, Africa and Asia. Amaranthus genus features at least 75 annual and perennial species that easily cross-breed and hybridize. There are three species of the genus Amaranthus that produce relatively large inflorescences with often more than 50,000 edible seeds per plant. These are A. hypochondriacus from Mexico, A. cruentus from Guatemala and A. caudatus from Peru and other Andean countries. Vegetable Amaranths (those grown or utilized mostly for their leaves) grow very well in the hot, humid regions of Africa, South-east Asia, Southern China, and India. They are represented by various Amaranth species, such as A. tricolor, A. dubious, A. cruentus, A. edulis, A. retroflexus, A. viridis, and A. hybridus.
Grain Amaranth was an important crop for the pre-Hispanic, New World civilizations. Its presence goes back some 4000 years BC in the Tehuacan Valley in Mexico–also the most likely site for the origin of maize. Its use was highly associated with religious festivities, which were forbidden by the Spanish conquerors and resulted in the near-elimination of the crop. Its production declined to small and insignificant levels, but it did not disappear. From Mesoamerica and the Andean region, grain Amaranth was apparently carried as a weed, ornamental, or grain to other parts of the world. It’s reemergence into popularity has been due, in part, to a cultural renaissance.