Facts about Amaranth
Amaranth is not a single plant. Instead, its genus Amaranthus comprises of about 60 different species that are all summer annuals. Many of these short-lived perennial plants are used as foods while some of them are noxious and invasive weed species outside their native ranges.
Aztecs and Native Americans in pre-historic times consumed the leafy greens and the seeds and even used them as medicinal herbs. The Amaranths have a high yield of leaves and seeds and are easy to grow, harvest, and to cook.
Amaranth plants are quite nutritious and hold tremendous promise as potential alternative crops. These species are quite competitive and are tolerant to various growing conditions and seed themselves readily. That is why these are found on every continent except Antarctica.
History of Amaranth
The Amaranth plant has had a rich and colorful history. Studies suggest that Amaranth was domesticated six to eight thousand years ago and was the major crop for the Aztecs. It was not only used as crops to eat but also had a major role to play in religious practices.
When the Spaniards landed in Aztec, one of their first moves was to outlaw foods involved in ‘heathen’ practices in a bid to forcefully convert them to Christianity. Nevertheless, complete eradication of this fast-growing and near-ubiquitous food proved to be impossible.
Seeds from Amaranth have spread throughout the world and the grain has become an important food source in Africa, Nepal, China, and India. In recent years, Amaranth has reached a much larger number of farmers and is now grown in non-native regions such as Russia, Nigeria, and Thailand. Since it is impressively adaptive, it is an invaluable food source in sub-Sahara Africa where water sources are few and far apart.
Characteristic of Amaranth
Amaranth plants can be termed as annuals or short-lived perennials. Their stems are usually reddish in color and are armed with spines. Their rhombic leaves are arranged alternately that can be smooth or covered in tiny hairs. It also features a taproot of pinkish hue. A single plant can produce hundreds or even thousands of seeds that are found in dry capsule fruits.
Amaranth utilizes a unique photosynthetic pathway that prevents photorespiration which increases its drought resistance. Amaranth can reach up to 2.5 meters in height and are harvested after one growing season of about 90 to 120 days. Amaranth can be bisexual or unisexual. The flowers feature colorful bracts that are used as common garden ornamentals.
Use of Amaranth
The uses of Amaranth are numerous and versatile. It is packed with protein and has 30% more protein than other grains. It also serves as a vital component of muscle building diets, especially for those who do no acquire their protein from animal sources. Amaranth seed oil has also proven to reduce bad cholesterol levels which make it a heart-healthy diet.
Amaranth also plays an important role in Aztec celebrations and rituals. Though its cultivation was outlawed after the Spanish conquest, it didn’t disappear completely. To this day, Amaranth seeds are eaten as snacks and it remains an important indigenous symbol for the Mexican culture.
Amaranth plants also make for stunning additions to landscapes and gardens. But what’s even more intriguing is Amaranth’s ability to remove lead from soil. It then proves to be a resilient, self-seeding biological tool to clean up the contaminated soils.
Amaranth also comes in alcoholic form. Many breweries use Amaranth as the main ingredient to brew beer that is completely gluten-free. Red leafed Amaranths are grown as a salad green in garden beds. Its leaves are as nutritious as spinach, which is a relative of Amaranth. Its seeds, leaves, as well as its roots make up for popular ingredients in cultures around the world.
Amaranth Flower Meaning
The name Amaranth comes from Greek ‘Amarantos’ which means ‘that which does not whither’, or the ‘unfading’. The Amaranth weeds are also known as pigweeds. On the other hand, the Amaranth plants that are used as garden ornamentals include love-lies-bleeding, prince’s feather, and Joseph’s coat for their colorful leaves and showy flower heads.
John Milton describes Amaranth as ‘immortal’ since it does not whither and retains its bright reddish tones even when deceased as is the case with ‘love-lies-bleeding’.
How to Care for Amaranth?
Growing Amaranth is relatively easy. Herein we take a look at the type of soil, climate, and the amount of sun that is necessary for its proliferation.
Even though Amaranth is a drought-resistant species, ensure that you water the plants at least one or two times a week during the dry season. A well-drained soil is also recommended for proper growth.
Gardeners can sow Amaranth seeds directly into the garden. Alternatively, one could start indoors and transplant them later. The plants are susceptible to frost and prefer warm weather conditions. When planting outdoors, ensure that you do so once the soil has begun warming up in spring.
Sow the seeds early in the season and provide a light soil cover. Ensure that the seedlings are about 10 to 12 inches apart. Amaranth can handle a little bit of crowding and look great in clumps or groups. It can take anywhere from 3 to 15 days for the seeds to germinate.
Amaranth is quite resistant to insects and diseases. However, in warm and humid conditions mildew can arise. If such problems or insect and disease-related problems occur, use fungicides and insect repellants early to treat the plant.
Harvesting Amaranth leaves can be done as early as three weeks after sowing. The leaves tend to be tastier and creamier when they are tender. Once the plant has flowered, red grains emerge as developed seeds. Harvesting these seeds take a longer time than harvesting the leaves.
Once the grains are ready for harvest, the flower stalks will visibly dry out. If the grains begin to drop out upon rubbing the Amaranth flower gently, then it is time for you to cut the flowers and dry them.