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Amaranth, food of the gods

Amaranth

By Amber Anderson

An exciting component in to the Oregon Tilth Demonstration Garden this year is the ancient grain amaranth. Including amaranth in our garden was an easy choice for many reasons. Amaranth is a broadleaf, herbaceous annual that offers edible, spinach-flavored leaves when the plant is young, brilliantly colorful flowers when in bloom and protein-packed seeds when the plant matures. 

In your vegetable garden, amaranth can create a beautiful backdrop or a stunning border, be used to line a walkway, or simply add a splash of color to two or three spots in your growing space. Keep in mind that some amaranth plants can achieve heights upwards of six to nine feet in ideal growing conditions. With over 60 varieties of amaranth to choose from, the more difficult decision tends to be selecting which varieties to grow. If you are like me, once you begin viewing photos of available varieties, resisting the urge to purchase seeds for each becomes the greatest challenge of all. What is the solution to this problem? Experiment, after all, isn’t that what we gardeners and farmers do best? Try growing different varieties each year – they all hold the promise of stunning summer-time splendor. 

The summer season saw three heirloom varieties growing in our Demonstration Garden: 

Amaranthus caudatus ‘Love-Lies-Bleeding.’ Tiny red flower clusters that cascade in drooping fashion. Plant averages four to six feet tall with the potential to reach up to eight feet. 

Amaranthus hybridus ‘Opopeo’ -Tiny burgundy flowers create masses of color that spike outward from the larger main heads and many side shoots. This variety can grow five to six feet tall.

Amaranthus gangeticus ‘Elephant Head’- Dark Burgundy blooms are shaped like an elephant’s trunk. Elephant Head grows from three to five feet tall with a similar width. 


Historical origin 

Native to North and South America, the Aztecs called amaranth the “Food of the Gods” due to the high nutrient content of the golden, poppy seed sized grain and because it grew just about anywhere. Amaranth nearly disappeared from the Americas as a food crop when the Spanish Conquistadors banned the cultivation of this grain upon their arrival in Mexico in the 1500s. Fortunately, amaranth had made its way to other parts of the world. In the United States in the 1970s, a team of scientists began extensive studies of amaranth grain, which led to the search for, and collection of, seeds from many different varieties. Today, amaranth is regarded worldwide as a chief nutritional grain crop.  

 

Nutritional benefits 

Most grains (corn, wheat and barley) lack the essential amino acid lysine. The protein in amaranth contains lysine, making it a complete protein which is needed to build muscle, tendons and other tissue. For those who are gluten intolerant, amaranth is gluten-free, making it another easily digestible grain to enjoy in your diet. Amaranth grain is an excellent source of fiber (three times higher than wheat) and calcium (twice that of milk). Amaranth is rich in vitamins and minerals, containing copper, iron, niacin, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, riboflavin, vitamin E and zinc. The young, edible leaves contain less oxalic acid than spinach (some sources claim oxalic acid may impair the body’s ability to efficiently absorb calcium). 

Growing amaranth

Amaranth is a warm-season crop. All varieties are drought-tolerant and quite adaptable, but they do best in humid climates with full sun and well-drained soil. Amaranth actually prefers poor quality soil and tolerates a pH between 6.0 and 7.5. Amaranth plants have a tendency to grow excessively vertical and can fall over if too much nitrogen is present in the soil so fertilize lightly. 

Start indoors 

Starting seeds indoors in a tray or flat is recommended for areas with short warm-weather seasons. Because we enjoy experimenting in our garden, we seeded twice this spring. Our first batch was started indoors in early April on a heated mat beneath a grow light. In mid-May, we seeded amaranth in a tray and situated it outside under a protective layer of floating row cover to help protect from the varying temperatures and weather. In both cases, sow seeds at a depth of a quarter inch and keep the soil moist until the seeds have germinated, but do not overwater. We transplanted the first group of starts into the Demonstration Garden in May and the second group in mid-June. We’ll know by the end of the season, which group performed better for us.

Once established, natural rainfall can provide amaranth with enough water to sustain itself, which also affords gardeners the opportunity to conserve our water resources. 

Direct seed 

If you wish to direct seed amaranth into your garden you will want to wait until all danger of frost is past and the soil temperature has reached 65 degrees. When sowing seeds directly into your garden bed, preparation takes precedence. To ensure that the seeds can break through the soil, prepare a nice, fine, moist seedbed. Plant seeds a quarter to a half inch deep and one to two inches apart. Once the seedlings reach three to six inches tall, thin them to eight to 12 inches. These thinnings are edible and the increased spacing will enable the plants to shade the soil and reduce the amount of time weeding later in the season.

 Harvesting amaranth 

Vegetable amaranth

Once the plant begins to flower, fewer leaves develop. So, if you are growing amaranth as a vegetable or leafy green, you can delay flowering by pinching and harvesting the leaves, which then allows for multiple harvests. Approximately 45 days after planting, harvest the young leaves and tender shoots every two to three weeks.

Grain amaranth 

About 90 days after planting, the amaranth grain should be ready to harvest. There are a couple of ways to check the grain for ripeness. When the seed head is about two-thirds mature, try shaking the plant or rub the heads (the masses of tiny flower clusters) between your hands; the grain is ripe when seeds fall to the ground. Not all of the grain ripens at once, so it is a good idea to examine your plants frequently when in bloom. Use a container to catch the seeds as you shake or rub the heads. Winnow the grain by using a screen and wind to remove the chaff. Be sure grain is completely dry before storing in airtight containers. 

Amaranth in the kitchen

Young leaves and shoots are edible raw or cooked. Steam or sauté amaranth as you would spinach or chard. Note: Cooking reduces the amount of oxalic acid.

Amaranth greens and grains can also make a delicious hot cereal when topped with fresh organic fruit, nuts, cream, maple syrup or cinnamon. Amaranth seeds can be ground into flour to make gluten free biscuits and muffins. For those who are not gluten intolerant, try substituting 25 percent of wheat flour with amaranth flour the next time you bake a loaf of whole wheat bread to create a delicious, protein packed loaf. A few simple recipes to test and sample are offered on page 31. Have fun.

 

Where to find amaranth seeds

Finding amaranth seeds is becoming easier as this grain gains popularity. Here are a few companies that sell amaranth seeds.

Uprising Seeds is Washington’s first 100-  percent certified organic seed company. www.uprisingorganics.com.

Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. 
www.seedsavers.org.

Seeds of Change provides organically grown seeds to gardeners and farmers. 
www.seedsofchange.com.

 

Other resources on whole grains

Whole Grain Baking by King Arthur Flour

Whole Grains: Every Day, Every Way by Lorna Sass

Homegrown Whole Grains by Sara Pitzer

Supporting and promoting sustainable agriculture is the mission of Oregon Tilth. The Organic Education Center’s 6,000 square-foot demonstration garden is located on the historic Luscher Farm property in Lake Oswego, Oregon. This space provides us with the opportunity to practice and teach organic growing methods. Utilizing the space to grow heirloom varieties helps preserve food crop diversity and raise awareness of ancient edibles such as amaranth. 

I hope you are inspired to introduce a few amaranth jewels into your garden in the growing seasons ahead! 

Amber Anderson is the OEC intern.

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