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Amazing Amaranths

My seed order waits for me to choose a variety of another plant I've fallen in love with.

All of the genus Amaranthus produce abundant small, nutty-tasting grain-like seeds, and leaves much like spinach — both more nutritious than their more familiar counterparts. For pre-Columbian Central and South America the plant was so vital a food crop, that it was honored in religious ceremonies in many ways like the Christian Eucharist. The Conquistadores, regarding this as sacrilege, banned the plant and forced their subjects to adopt less-nutritious European crops. But it remains a staple in many other parts of the world.

Most cultivated amaranths are gorgeous — with big, striking flowers, colorful leaves ... or both, in flamboyant combinations of purple, red, orange, yellow and green. Some varieties of A. tricolor — which has at least five botanical-name synonyms from its importance in so many places — have insignificant flowers but such showy leaves they're called "Joseph's coat" and "summer poinsettia." Two-foot 'Red Calaloo' has broad green leaves with a burgundy-red overlay and a high reputation for flavor.

A. gangeticus, technically another tricolor, bears the common name "elephant-head amaranth" because its central long, blunt-tipped maroon plume sways off to the side like an elephant's trunk. It grows a bushy three to five feet tall, with green leaves popular in Asian and Africa for eating when young. If you cut the flowers, they rebloom. (Amaranth flowers dry well.)

A. hypochondriacus, much grown for its vigorous seed production, can get seven to ten feet tall, with a structure like a corn plant, and flowers shaped like those of the related plume celosia — but huge. Golden amaranth reflects its name in leaf, stalk and flower; 'Warihio' sports tones of red.

Although in the high Andes A. caudatus is still grown in small plots for grain, the variety known to gardeners yields less; "love-lies-bleeding" is grown rather for the Victorian drama of its deep red, two-foot long plumes draping down from five-foot plants.

Amaranths are easy to grow, because they use "C4 photosynthesis" (with four carbon molecules involved in the chemical process), a more efficient form of carbon fixation than the C3 pathway most plants use — particularly at high temperatures, in bright sunlight and under dry conditions. However, ample moisture produces more leaves. Use only organic nitrogen sources to fertilize, because amaranths concentrate poisonous nitrates.


© Copyright 2006 Catherine Holmes Clark

Published in the six Nashoba Publications papers on Friday, 13 January 2006

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For more information
  • Amaranth: Modern Prospects for an Ancient Crop, by the Board on Science and Technology for International Development (BOSTID) of the U.S. National Research Council.
  • Grain Amaranths, by G.A. Itúrbide and M. Gispert. From Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective. 1994. J.E. Hernándo Bermejo and J. León (eds.). Plant Production and Protection Series No. 26. FAO, Rome, Italy. p. 93-101. On the site of Purdue Univeristy's New Crop Resource Online Program. About A. cruentus and A. hypochondriacus, with a detailed history of the conflict over amaranth between the Catholic church and the indigenous religion.
  • Amaranth plant and seed varieties from Rich Farm Garden - scroll down to see gaudy A. tricolor 'Perfecta'
  • Red Calaloo - an A. tricolor for greens
  • A. gangeticus - best photo of elephant-head amaranth.
  • From Weed, A Winner - A. retroflexus, A. hypochondriacus, A. gangeticus, A.caudatus
  • Golden amaranth - an A. hypochondriacus - at Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
  • Warihio an A. hypochondriacus, from Seeds of Change
  • Amaranthus caudatus (Love-Lies-Bleeding)