In June, my garden intern and I dug out the grass around the apple trees and built a new bed to brighten up the area below the young trees gracing the walkway to the front door. We dug and sifted and pulled out every millimeter of bermuda grass. Then I watered it all and waited for more bermuda to come up. It did. I pulled it out and repeated the process. Once I was confident all the bermuda was finally gone, I wheeled barrows of compost from the pile out back to the front yard and dug it into the bed. I placed a dreamy order for bearded iris and South African bulbs that will make this bed a show-stopping riot of blossoms, with the earliest maturing plants beginning their first bloom in a year. I figured I'd have to wait for beauty.

The bulbs and iris rhizomes arrived in August, and I planted them right away. However, already something had made itself at home in the bed, something unexpected, something carried in from the compost: amaranth.

Last year, a friend gave me one amaranth seedling from a variety, I think it is Hopi Red Dye—or something very similar—that had naturalized in her yard. I planted it in the rich soil of my vegetable beds, and it grew, but never very dramatically. Out of curiosity last fall, I nibbled some of the seed it gave me—nutty and nice—and I didn't think much about it when I tossed the plant in the compost. I certainly didn't expect the forest I'd find this year.

Though I've pulled out armloads of seedlings and eaten them steamed and stirfried, cut others out and filled glass vases with them to make dramatic blood-red feather-hat arrangements with pink-stained water, there are still loads of plants. I'm not complaining. As I wait for the iris to grow in and the apples to continue to grow out, it is nice to have such a dramatic filler.

Yet amaranth is more than a filler. Amaranth is both an edible green and grain, and I'll be able to use it as both this year; I've already eaten plenty of greens, and I'm expecting an ample grain harvest to add to my breads and other baked goods, just as I do the poppy seed I grow. I hope to be able to collect enough to experiment in other ways too, maybe grinding some to try as a flour or popping the grains to use as a cereal. Both the greens and the grains are very high in protein and other good-for-us minerals. And, like so many of our best food-plants, amaranth has a fascinating history.

From "Mexico's Grain of the Gods," by Karen Hursh Graber on
Amaranth, a plant used for both its spinach-like leaves and for the grain gathered from the center stalk, had tremendous ritual significance for the Aztecs. Many of their ceremonies included the formation of an image of one of the gods, made with a paste of amaranth grains mixed with honey. Tlaloc, the rain god, Ome Acatl, the patron of banquets, and Xochipilli, the god of youth, poetry and flowers, were all honored with amaranth likenesses. The images, once formed, were worshipped, broken up and distributed to eat. The birth of a male child was also an occasion involving amaranth grains, this time made into a paste for the formation of a replica shield, bow and arrows, symbolic of hunting in particular and manly pursuits in general.
The leaves, too, had their place in ceremonial meals, ground and used in the tamales offered to the fire god Xiuhtecuhtli, and to the dead on the feast of Huauquiltamalcualitztli, a mouthful to say as well as to eat, meaning "the meal of the amaranth tamales." Amaranth was so necessary to both the religion and nutrition of the Aztecs that it was one of the four grains considered as acceptable tribute from outlying parts of the empire, the other three being corn, beans and chia.
And from: Gardens of New Spain: How Mediterranean Plants and Foods Changed America, William W. Dunmire, 54-55.
By the time Aztecs ruled central Mexico, amaranth seeds were greatly coveted, both for eating and for ceremonial use, and outlying provinces were forced to deliver annual seed tribute to the capital city of Tenochtitlan. Altogether, hundreds of thousands of bushels were funneled to the capital each year. When the Spanish arrived, accompanying friars recognized the importance of amaranth in Aztec pagan rituals and all but succeeded in suppressing the amaranth trade. 
But Spaniards had no problem with Aztecs using amaranth grain for daily consumption—fortunate, since the grains are rich in lysine, an essential amino acid lacking in corn. Native Americans also collected [the] greens, which contain other amino acids as well as vitamin A. Eventually Spanish colonists learned the value of adding quelites—the young leaves and stems of amaranth and related goosefoot plants—to their stew pots, and that tradition has continued among more than a few Hispanic farming families living in northern New Mexico today. 
So my garden is full of a plant that has nourished people for millennia and it now it nourishes me. I can't get enough of how the sun looks as it streams through the stained glass leaves or how the stems stand fluorescent pink against the dark soil. Neither the Catholic friars nor the heat of late summer have stopped it from providing food and beauty. More appropriately than I could have imagined, the name amaranth comes from Greek: the suffix anthos means flower; the root amarantos means unfading.


Michelle said…
I had one of those amaranth plants grow to over 6 or 7 feet tall once. I do hope you truly like it, because you may never be without it now! Although, if you can get rid of a patch of bermuda grass (ugh), you could deal with Hopi Red Dye. I've come to like the green leaf amaranths for their tasty leaves, they are a bit more mild tasting than the red leaf varieties.
Christina said…
I do like it; and I like the leaves when young, too. They were good steamed then stirfried. I'm super curious about the grains. I don't mind having it as a reseeding plant--it is a lot easier to pull up than other plants around here, and it is so pretty.
Gina said…
I love compost pile surprises! I've had some very good seedlings inadvertently start there. The color of the amaranth is stunning. Would you be willing to part with some seeds? That might be just the thing for the strip of ground I have between the street and the sidewalk. How much do you water them?

I use amaranth all the time in whole-grain bread. I buy the grains whole. I then toast about a cup of the grains in the oven and then grind them into flour which replaces some of the AP flour in my bread recipes. Then I cook about another 1/2 cup of the whole grains on the stove like rice - until soft. Those soft grains are folded into the bread dough. This results in a bread with some "chew" to it and a very nutty flavor. I just made some yesterday!
Now I am inspired to try growing some amaranth myself! I do use it in cooking. The flour makes a great thickener for soups and sauces, replacing flour or cornstarch. And I love the popped seeds as a snack. I need to experiment more with incorporating it in baked goods.

I am growing one of its cousins this year, huauzontle or Red Aztec Spinach. It is just now flowering, so I need to watch for the seed or I will have a forest of my own next year in my main garden area!
Anonymous said…
The photos are lovely and I'm filled with amaranth envy. The won't grow in my yard; must have been something I said.
Christina said…
Gina: I'll have plenty of seed to share. Thank you for the suggestion of how to add it to my baking, too. Great stuff!

Dave: Thank you for the suggestion of using it as a thickener. I wouldn't have thought of that. It's a great idea! I've never grown huauzontle, but I've seen it, and it is a really interesting looking plant. I bet it looks beautiful in your yard.

AH: I've tried to grow it from seed before and failed miserably. I think this only worked because I didn't plan it.
I have the pink powdered mountain spinach which self seeds all over my allotment and I never mind pulling it out. Amaranth has never done well for me - I don't know whether that's because we lack enough sunlight in the UK or whether our clay soil is too heavy. It's a great grain to add to granola/muesli.
I'm just catching up because I've been busy growing and then trying not to break a wee hunan, but INTERN?! What a colossally genius idea! Where can I get an intern? Do they make interns who wash dishes, or is that exploitative?
I had no idea the amaranth plant looks like this. How beautiful! The grains are so good, but I bet they are a little hard to harvest because they're so small. How do you do it?
Aaron Gardener said…
Wow! I'm planning to add some red amaranth to my small edible garden next year. Hope it will do even half as well as yours have!

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