Growing Amaranth As A Food Plant

Amaranthus spp.

How to grow amaranth, why, what to do with it

Growing amaranth is possible all year round in the tropics. That's one of the reasons it is an essential and ubiquitous plant in my permaculture garden.

Here are some more good reasons to grow amaranth plants:

Flowering Amaranth Plants

Photo by Dysviz

What is amaranth?

Most people I talk to have never heard of amaranth, yet amaranth is a leaf vegetable and grain that has been eaten for centuries all over the world.

Red-leaved Amaranth

Photo by Ilovemypit

Amaranth seeds have been used since ancient times in Central and Latin America and in the countries of the Himalayas. Amaranth leaves are used across Asia.

The green-leaved varieties are popular in India and other places, the Chinese prefer their amaranth red-leaved and amaranth grain once was a staple in the diets of pre-Columbian Aztecs.

Amaranth and nutrition

Technically amaranth is a seed not a grain.

The amaranth family (Amaranthaceae) includes the previously separate family of the beets and spinaches, the Chenopodiaceae. Amaranth is not related to the Graminae, the real grains.

Compared to other grains amaranth seeds have a much higher content of the minerals calcium, magnesium, iron and of the amino acid Lysine. (Grains are usually low in that, corn has none. Most people get their Lysine from meat.)

Popped Amaranth

Photo by Orphanjones

Amaranth seeds are also high in potassium, zinc, Vitamin B and E and can contain over 20% protein (depending on the variety).

You can find amaranth grain in health food stores in the form of amaranth flour and the popped seeds as amaranth cereal.

I never tried the flour (I don't cook or bake much, if at all). But I can tell you that amaranth cereal is delicious.

Amaranth leaves are nutitionally similar to beets, Swiss chard and spinach, but are much superior. For example amaranth leaves contain three times more calcium and three times more niacin (vitamin B3) than spinach leaves. (Or twenty times more calcium and seven times more iron than lettuce, which simply isn't all that nutritious...).

Amaranth is much closer genetically to its wild ancestors than our over developed and nutritionally depleted typical vegetables. Amaranth leaves are an excellent source of carotene, iron, calcium, protein, vitamin C and trace elements.

Local farmer's markets may offer bunches of amaranth greens, but those don't keep at all so you'd have to use them quickly. It's much easier to grow amaranth and cut it as needed.

What does amaranth look like?

Flowering Amaranth Plants

Photo by Photofarmer

Amaranth is an upright, moderately tall, broad leafed, annual plant. There is a number of different species of amaranth and a huge number of varieties within those species.

Amaranth comes in all sizes, shapes and colours. The leaves can be round or lance shaped, five to fifteen cm long or more, light green, dark green, reddish or variegated. Seeds maybe white, yellow, pink or black. Flowers can be huge tassles or tiny globes, red, pink, yellow or cream...

Amaranth is related to a common weed you probably know, pigweed. Or rather, the pigweeds (there are different kinds) are amaranth species. The weedy amaranth types are also edible and taste much like the cultivated varieties. They just don't grow as large and leafy, or produce as many grains, or look half as good in the garden.

Some cultivated amaranth varieties grow to two metres or six feet tall and individual plants that landed in a great spot with no competition may grow even taller.

Love Lies Bleeding

Photo by Carl E Lewis

The flowers can be striking and they produce a huge number of tiny seeds. (Over 100,000!)

Do you know the flower Love Lies Bleeding? That's an amaranth species, Amaranthus caudatus, and yes, the leaves and seeds are edible and nutritious like any other amaranth.

You probably won't find leaf and grain amaranth seed in your local garden centre (you should find amaranth flowers), but online seed retailers who specialise in heirloom seeds, organic seeds, vegetable seeds or anything similarly sensible usually carry them.

Don't expect the cultivated leaf amaranth species to look as stunning as Love Lies Bleeding or some grain amaranths. The leaf amaranth flowers are usually much smaller, and creamy or greenish in colour. You grow those for food only, not for looks.

How to grow Amaranth

Well, there really isn't much to it. Amaranth seed is very fine. If you grow leaf amaranth you want a large number of plants because you will likely harvest the whole plant while it is still young. There is no point starting it in punnets.

(Unless you only have a few seeds. Then you can start your first plants in pots or something. But do collect enough seeds for the next planting to save that step. See below.)

Thinly sprinkle the seed on the ground and rake it in.

Like all fast growing leafy greens amaranth loves rich soil with steady moisture and a good supply of nutrients, especially nitrogen. But it isn't as fussed as spinach or silverbeet would be. Amaranth is much hardier. It can cope with heat and dry conditions a lot better than any other leafy green. (One more good reason for this lazy gardener to grow it!)

If you are frustrated with trying to grow tasty, leafy greens in the tropic, amaranth is a plant you should start growing today.

Harvesting, using and cooking amaranth

Amaranth Leaves

Photo by Steevo2005

Harvest leaf amaranth whenever you like. Ok, harvest it as early as you like and definitely before it flowers (you can eat the buds though).

The youngest leaves have a milder flavour and are good to use in salads, the mature leaves are better cooked like spinach. Anything you would use spinach for, just use amaranth leaves exactly the same way.

You can use the young stems as well. (Older stems would need peeling and I sure won't bother with that...)

I usually cut my amaranth when it is between one and two feet tall. I just cut the whole stem, maybe six to ten inches above the ground. The stem will reshoot and I may harvest that again (unless by then the bugs demolished it).

Amaranth flower with seed

Photo by Post406

I always leave the two or three biggest, healthies amaranth plants in a bed alone and let them go to seed.

Once the flower head has mostly dried up I cut that and shake the seeds out into a paper bag. That gives me thousands of amaranth seeds for the next few plantings. Seeds also drop on the ground as the seed heads ripen and during harvesting.

After shaking out the seeds into the bag I crunch up the left over, dry seed head (which still contains seeds) and spread the remains over some other areas.

And if I'm about to move the mobile chicken pen I throw it in there for the chickens to spread.

As a result there is always amaranth growing here somewhere, even when I don't get around to planting it properly.

I grow three amaranth varieties. One ornamental variety, two metres tall with massive red flower heads, one leaf amaranth, and weed amaranth :-). And I eat all of them. I eat whatever is closest to the kitchen and ready.

Despite amaranth being one of the precious few grains that is actually feasible for home growing, I don't grow grain amaranth. I don't eat grains anyway, plus harvesting and cleaning enough grain to make it worthwhile sounds like a lot of work. I also can't see myself getting into making my own amaranth flour or popping the seeds for cereal etc.

I can't give you tips for harvesting and using the grain, but if you have any, please do share them! (Through the contact page.)

Thank you to Nancy and Rosita for doing just that:
Harvesting Amaranth Seeds
Cooking Amaranth Grains




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