Amaranth is a bushy plant that grows two to seven feet tall. Although the seeds are used as a grain, they are not related to cereal grains which are members of the grass family. There are over 60 species in the genus that include those grown for seeds, those grown for leaves and many that are either weeds or ornamental plants. Almost all of them are edible.
Amaranth has broad, alternate leaves and a feathery flower head of small red or magenta flowers. This flower head is unmistakable and really does look like the feathers of some exotic bird. The seed heads resemble really bushy corn tassels. Each plant is capable of producing 40,000 to 60,000 tiny golden-colored seeds. (Some species produce black or brown seeds.)
History and Folklore
The name Amaranth comes from the word amaranton, which means “unwithering”, because the flowers maintain their shape and color when dried.
Amaranth was a staple in the diets of pre-Columbian Aztecs, who believed it had supernatural powers and incorporated it into their religious ceremonies. Before the Spanish conquest in 1519, amaranth was associated with human sacrifice and the Aztec women made a mixture of ground amaranth seed, honey or human blood then shaped this mixture into idols that were eaten ceremoniously. This practice appalled the conquistadors who reasoned that eliminating the amaranth would also eliminate the sacrifices. The grain was forbidden by the Spanish, and consequently fell into obscurity for hundreds of years.
In the Cusco area the flowers are used to treat toothache and fevers and as a food colorant for maize and quinoa. During the carnival festival women dancers often use the red amaranth flower as rouge, painting their cheeks, then dancing while carrying bundles of amaranth on their backs as they would a baby.
In India amaranth is known as “rajeera” (the King’s grain) and is popped then used in confections called “laddoos,” which are similar to Mexican “alegria.”
In Ecuador, the flowers are boiled then the colored boiling water is added to “aquardeinte” rum to create a drink that “purifies the blood,” and is also reputed to help regulate the menstrual cycle.
Amaranth is very easy to grow. It is an annual, so it will have to be replanted, or allowed to self-seed each year. It readily reseeds, however, and unless you’re careful you won’t have much choice in the matter. It doesn’t transplant well and grows best outdoors. It tolerates a variety of soil types, though fertile, well-drained soil is best. It is resistant to heat and drought and has no major disease problems, although it is susceptible to fungus if the soil is kept too moist. It has the ability to bounce back from a wilt when conditions improve.
Just throw down some seeds in the spring, mid-May to early June is best. It works well in crop rotation with corn or soybeans. There are no herbicides listed as safe to use with amaranth, which is just as well, because I like to go organic. At any rate, the wide leaves shade the ground so that few weeds stand a chance in all that shade once the plant gets going.
Harvesting & Storage
You can harvest the seeds as late as the day after the first frost. If the leaves start to fall off, that’s an indication that it’s about ready. You can then cover the seed heads with a brown paper bag and shake the seeds loose. Pick off the leaves and use as needed. They are best when they are young and fresh and are usually in good shape late spring through early autumn.
Store away from light in a cool, dry place. Light, heat and moisture will damage the oils in the seeds and cause them to go rancid.
Flower heads can be cut when they bloom and hung upside down to dry.
Magical and Spiritual Attributes
A crown of amaranth flowers worn on the head speeds healing.
To make sure that you are never struck by a bullet, pull up a whole amaranth plant (including roots) preferably on a Friday during the Full Moon. Leave an offering to the plant and then fold it, roots and all, in a piece of white cloth. Wear this against your breast and you’ll be ‘bullet-proof.’
The dried amaranth flowers have been used to call forth the dead, I don’t know the process for this.
Amaranth is used in spells to repair a broken heart.
It is also associated with immortality and is used to decorate images of gods and goddesses as well as in Pagan funeral ceremonies.
Woven into a wreath, it is said to render the wearer invisible.
Amaranth flowers dry well and look good in floral arrangements.
The flowers of red amaranth can be dried, powdered and used as a cosmetic to brighten lips and cheeks.
Amaranth is a highly-nutritive tonic herb. It should always be cooked before being eaten and it should be grown in a low-nitrogen situation.
Amaranth seeds can be used as a grain substitute for someone who is sensitive to grains or looking for a low-carb option. Because it is highly digestible, it is also good for people recovering from an illness or breaking a fast. It must be mixed with other flours for making yeast breads because it contains no gluten. See more information under “culinary use”.
Amaranth seeds have also demonstrated effectiveness in helping to lower cholesterol.
An extract of the flowers can be used externally for sores and ulcers and as a mouth wash for sores in the mouth.
Amaranth seeds are packed with protein and fiber though they seem to also contain some chemical that inhibits their absorption. Whatever this chemical is, it is more of a problem with raw seeds than cooked seeds. They can be processed in a variety of ways, including popped, ground into flour, flaked and others. The whole seeds can be added to baked goods for texture, cooked into cereal, added to soups and stews as a thickening agent and a bit of texture, or roasted and eaten like sunflower seeds.
To cook amaranth seeds as a cereal or side dish, like rice or couscous, combine equal parts water and apple juice or broth (depending on whether you want your amaranth to be sweet or not) to get 2 cups liquid. Place in a saucepan with 1 cup amaranth seeds and bring to a gentle boil. Cook about 18-20 minutes until the liquid is dissolved and the seeds are tender. Experiment with different herbs for different flavors for a side dish. For breakfast cereal, add raisins and honey while cooking and serve with milk.
Amaranth flour can be used in making pasta, flatbreads, and pancakes. Because it contains no gluten, it must be mixed with other flours for yeast breads, but you can use up to 50% amaranth flour with no negative effects on the performance of the base flour.
In Mexico, popped amaranth is blended with molasses or honey and formed into a bar, much like a granola bar, or Rice Krispy treats. This treat is called “alegria” (happiness). The roasted and milled seed is also used to make a traditional drink called “atole.”
Amaranth leaves can be cooked and eaten like spinach. They are very high in iron and vitamin C and also contain calcium, protein, phosphorus, potassium, thiamine, riboflavin and niacin. Just steam them lightly. They are especially good sprinkled with sesame seeds or pine nuts.
In Africa and the Caribbean, amaranth is a common potherb and the leaves are picked off as needed.
Amaranth grows as a weed in many gardens. Look for a thick, smooth red-veined stem, arrow-shaped leaves and a bushy flower head. Weed varieties produce green flowers. Cook the leaves like spinach.
Do not eat amaranth raw in large amounts and do not feed raw amaranth to your pet rats, birds, etc.
Do not eat Amaranth that has been grown in manure and chemically fertilized areas as it stores the nitrates these fertilizers contain in its leaves. Nitrates have been linked to stomach cancer.