Add Some Drama to Your Garden With Ornamental Amaranth

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Story at-a-glance -

  • Growing your own produce is one of the best ways to ensure access to fresh, chemical-free food, and is an activity enjoyed by young and senior gardeners each year
  • There are nearly 60 varieties of amaranth, a tall flowering plant producing edible leaves and thousands of seeds you may use in your cooking
  • Although technically a seed and not a grain, amaranth seeds may be popped, boiled, broiled and added to soups and stews as a flavorful and nutrient-packed thickener
  • The leaves may be harvested throughout the growing season, but the seeds require up to three months to mature. The seeds are high in protein and lysine, an essential amino acid; they are easily digested, high in fiber and higher in minerals, such as calcium, iron and carotenoids, than most vegetables

By Dr. Mercola

Growing your own fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to ensure access to fresh, chemical-free food. An annual National Gardening Survey1 finds the proportion of older gardeners is holding steady while younger individuals who enjoy gardening is reaching an all-time high. Container and landscape gardening are also setting new records.

Gardening provides a sensory experience and may help improve your mood.2 A study from the Netherlands suggests gardening may fight stress better than other leisure activities. A study from Norway found those who suffered from depression or bipolar disorder experienced measurable improvements after spending three months gardening six hours a week.3

There are an amazing number and variety of plants you may include in your backyard or container garden. Some plants serve several purposes, such as edible leaves and seeds and beautiful flowers. The amaranth is a wonderful example of a plant you might consider for your flower garden or vegetable garden, as it is an excellent option for either.

History of Amaranth

The Incas used amaranth grain as a prized health food, but you might find the flowers have great ornamental value in a sunny garden bed. Grain amaranth species have been important for several thousand years, and the largest known acreage was grown during the Aztec civilization in the 1400s.4

However, when Cortes and his army entered the Aztec capital they found amaranth was more than mere food. It was used in ceremonial and religious events. Cortes was bent on eliminating pagan rituals, and so ordered fields of amaranth to be burned and strict punishment enforced, including death, for those possessing the grain.5

During the past two centuries, grain amaranth has been grown throughout Mexico, Central America, India, China and Eastern Africa. There is a movement to revive amaranth as a staple crop in Mexico as it has high nutritional value and is able to withstand high temperatures. Although not actually a grain, its nutritional composition is so similar it's often included with cereal grains.6

The plants are usually bright gold, purple or red and retain their color even after harvest and drying. Research in the U.S. by agronomists began in the 1970s in order to adapt varieties to U.S. climate. Today, a few thousand acres are commercially grown in America, increasing slightly each year since the 1980s.7

Gardeners adding amaranth to their fields today know after one season the plant often returns and sprouts up in other places. The amaranth plant can send thousands of seeds from one parent plant,8 which easily sprout in fertile soil.

Add Color, Flair and Nutrition to Your Garden

The amaranth family has nearly 60 different varieties.9 Some are grown and harvested for food, while others are weeds. The name “love-lies-bleeding” describes one of the ornamental plants, but is only one variety in the Amaranthus genus.

Other varieties, including “fountain plant” or “Joseph’s coat,” are found in ornamental gardens. A load of tassel-shaped flowers either droop or remain erect are usual in the ornamental plant, which may also have edible leaves and seeds. The flowers are often red, but varieties include orange, yellow and green.

The leaves of the plant may be as decorative as the flowers. Some varieties have bronze or purple foliage ranging in height from 20 inches to 5 feet or more. The taller variety should be planted at the back of a border or alongside other tall annual plants. As many varieties of amaranth have edible leaves and seeds, it's a natural choice for an ornamental vegetable garden.

Another name for a variety of amaranth is pigweed,10 an annual green leafy vegetable that may show up in your garden uninvited. It has served to trap leaf miners and other pests and will shelter ground beetles that prey upon insect pests. Many garden centers carry one or two different types of amaranth, but others may offer several colors and varieties, including:11

  • Hot Biscuits — Multiple orange upright plumes
  • Early Splendor — Purple leaves and vivid red flowers.
  • Elephant Head — Unusually dense flower clusters, narrowing to one trunk-like flower.
  • Love Lies Bleeding — Deep red flowers on a five-foot tall plant
  • Green Tails — A trailing type of amaranth doing well in containers or hanging baskets
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Growing Healthy Amaranth Plants for a Full Harvest

The seeds of the amaranth plant are very small so it is important your seed bed is filled with fine firm soil.12 As demonstrated in the video, consider using 30 percent perlite,13 30 percent compost and 30 percent peat moss to start your seedlings. Sow a handful in a pot and water the soil lightly, being sure you don’t drown the seeds.

Although the seeds can be planted directly into your flower garden, starting the seedlings in a pot allows you to plant the flowers spaced approximately 10 inches apart after the seedlings have emerged from the soil. It may take up to two weeks for the new plants to have two to four leaves and be ready to be transplanted.

You can easily pull seedlings from the pot and plant them in a raised bed, in your flower garden or in another pot. The plants appreciate plenty of organic material, but don't otherwise require fertilization. Optimally, they appreciate well-drained soil to reduce the risk of fungus.

Amaranth prefers warm weather and is susceptible to frost.14 When starting your seeds outdoors, be sure the soil has begun to warm and the chance of frost is over. Amaranth plants are very drought tolerant, and while they don't like excessive irrigation, they appreciate consistent watering.15

The biggest pest affecting the plant are deer. They often browse the foliage and eat the seeds as readily as any other vegetable. Unfortunately, they're only deterred by fencing.16 Other pests such as cutworms, aphids and leaf miners may also damage the leaves. An effective method of controlling them is to cover the bed with a fine screen or nylon mesh netting.17

Harvesting Leaves and Seeds

When growing plants to harvest the leaves, in your vegetable garden, you may start to harvest 40 days after planting. However, if your intent is growing for the seeds and the flowers in an ornamental garden, you'll want to wait until the end of the growing season.

As shown in the video above, after 40 days you can clip the top of the plant and additional stems will appear on each side, making the plant bushier and lower to the ground. The plant will continue to grow until the first hard frost hits.

You can begin to harvest seeds several weeks before the first frost, usually three months after planting. The simplest way to determine if seeds are ready is to gently shake or rub the flower heads between your hands. When the seeds easily fall out, it's an indication they are ready for harvest.

If you see small birds gathered around the plants, it’s likely they are eating seeds — another indication they are ready for harvest. Once ready, the easiest way to gather seed outside is to bend the plant over a bowl and rub the seed head between your hands.18 This is best done in dry weather and when wearing gloves to protect your hands.

Another option is to cut the flower heads and hang the plants upside down to dry indoors. Some find the seeds naturally fall out of the flower head, dropping to a receptacle you have below the plant. However, others find the plants may become extremely brittle, and it is then difficult to separate the seed from the chaff when dried inside.

If you are removing the seeds after drying indoors, remember to wear gloves to protect your hands. There are several ways to separate the seeds from the seed heads, including placing the seed heads between two pieces of cloth and stepping on them without shoes or placing the seed heads inside a paper bag and beating them together.19

Storing Seeds for the Winter Months

Once harvested, the leaves will last in your refrigerator about as long as spinach does. The seed may be stored in an airtight glass container so you can use the grain throughout the winter months. If you didn't grow your own, amaranth seeds are available year-round, but the leaves are seasonal. Harvesting seeds is labor intensive, so if you're purchasing from a market it will be relatively expensive.

Some manufacturers grind the grain into flour, which has more protein than most other flowers and higher in the amino acid lysine. The flower has a light peppery taste and is favored in savory breads.

If you're purchasing at the store, the seed should be well wrapped in airtight packages. Like most other seeds, amaranth contain some fat and is best stored in the refrigerator or freezer to prevent them from going rancid.20

Remarkable Nutrition Packed in the Leaves and Seeds of Amaranth

Technically not a grain but a seed,21 amaranth is gluten-free and pale ivory with up to 17 percent protein. It is high in lysine, an essential amino acid normally low in cereal crops.

The protein content found in amaranth grain is comparable to milk, but more easily digested. The primary proteins are albumin and globulins, which, in comparison with the prolamins in wheat, are more soluble and digestible.

The grain is high in fiber and has been associated with a reduction in cholesterol in laboratory animals. The grain is also higher in minerals, such as calcium, iron, phosphorus and carotenoids, than most vegetables.

One cup contains 15 milligrams (mg) of iron and 18 mg of fiber; 105 percent of the daily value per serving of manganese is found in the seed. Amaranth is also the only grain with documented vitamin C content.22

Cooking the Seeds for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

Once cooked with water, amaranth has a slightly nutty flavor and a porridge consistency. However, it can also be roasted, popped, boiled or added to other dishes, which makes it a versatile, nutrition-packed item in your pantry.23

To use it as breakfast cereal, cook to a porridge-like consistency using a ratio of 1 1/2 cups of liquid to a one-half cup of amaranth seed. Bring the liquid and amaranth to a boil, reduce and simmer uncovered until the water is absorbed. If it's overcooked, it may become gummy and congeal, so serve it immediately. Consider adding nuts, cinnamon or berries.

It might be cooked with other grains, such as brown rice. Made this way, it does not become as sticky but adds a nutty sweetness to the dish. Use a ratio of one-fourth cup of amaranth to three-fourths cup of another grain. A couple of tablespoons may also be added to soups and stews as a power-packed thickener.

Like corn seeds, amaranth may be popped or puffed.24 You want to prevent steam build up and use a dry pot, so don’t put a lid on it. Unfortunately, some seeds may jump out while cooking so it's a good idea to watch the seeds and protect your eyes from an errant seed.

Try using a high-sided pot to prevent too many seeds from shooting out. It's also important to find the perfect temperature on your stove so the seeds don't burn. If the pot is too hot or not hot enough they will burn but not pop.25 You may have to throw out the first batch or two until you get it right.

Shake the pot often to get the seeds moving to the hotspots of the pot and to help them pop evenly without the pop ones getting burned. Preheat your pot in order to prevent burning the seeds. Popped amaranth can be eaten as is or added to homemade granola, granola bars and salads.26

Easy Amaranth Recipes

You may find incorporating amaranth into your diet challenging if you don’t enjoy porridge-style breakfast cereal. However, the recipes below are sure to tempt your palate and may help spark creativity in your kitchen.

Mexican Ranchero Amaranth Stew courtesy of Making Thyme for Health27

Ingredients

  • 1 cup amaranth
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 diced yellow onion
  • 3 minced garlic cloves
  • 1 diced jalapeno pepper
  • 2 diced bell peppers
  • 3 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 (14.5 ounce) can crushed fire roasted tomatoes
  • 2 teaspoons ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon cayenne to your taste
  • 15 ounces soaked black beans
  • 1/2 cup chopped cilantro
  • 1 juiced lime
  • 2 avocados

Procedure

  1. Rinse your amaranth seeds using a fine sieve so you don’t lose any. Warm the olive oil in a large pot over medium heat.
  2. Add the next three ingredients and cook for 5 minutes. Add the bell pepper and seasonings (cumin, chili powder and cayenne) stirring together.
  3. Add the vegetable broth and the tomatoes with their juices. Bring to a low boil and cook for 15 minutes so that it thickens slightly.
  4. Add the amaranth and continue to cook for another 20 minutes. Add the black beans, chopped cilantro and the juice of 1 lime and stir together.
  5. Cook until everything is heated. Serve garnished with avocado and chopped cilantro.

Tabbouleh-Style Amaranth Salad courtesy of Yummly28

Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 cups cold water
  • 1/2 cup uncooked whole-grain amaranth
  • 2 cups diced unpeeled English cucumber
  • 1/2 cup thinly sliced celery
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped red onion
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1/4 cup pine nuts, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon rind
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/2 cup chickpeas (garbanzo beans)
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) feta cheese, crumbled
  • Lemon wedges (optional)

Procedure

  1. Bring 1 1/2 cups cold water and amaranth to a boil in a medium saucepan; reduce heat, cover and simmer 20 minutes or until water is almost absorbed (it will have the appearance of mush).
  2. While amaranth cooks, combine cucumber and the next 11 ingredients in a large bowl.
  3. Place amaranth in a sieve, and rinse under cold running water until room temperature; drain well, pressing with the back of a spoon.
  4. Add to cucumber mixture; toss to blend. Add cheese; toss gently. Garnish with lemon wedges, if desired.