If you were sent on a scavenger hunt to find amaranth, tampala, tassel flower, flaming fountain, fountain plant, Joseph's Coat, love-lies-bleeding, molten flower, prince's feather, pigweed and summer poinsettia, how many plants would you need to find? Answer: One. These are all common names for Amaranthus.
The name Amaranth derives from Greek amárantos, which means "unfading," combined with ánthos, the Greek word for "flower.” The name refers to an imaginary flower that never fades or dies. Certainly anyone who has the pleasure of seeing a dramatic amaranth flower in full bloom will have an unfading memory of the image.
Not Just a Pretty Face
But the annual amaranth plants offer far more than just pretty flowers. Their tasty seeds are nutrient-rich, packed with protein, which food experts estimate to be up to 30% more than true grains such as corn, rice and wheat. Because of the abundance of the essential amino acid lysine, the seed is considered to be a complete protein.
The gluten-free seeds can be ground into flour, popped like popcorn, sprouted, toasted, added to soups or stews for thickening and made into candies. They have three times the fiber content and five times the iron of wheat. They also have twice the calcium of milk and are low in both saturated fat and cholesterol. In fact, the oil in the seeds has been shown to lower bad cholesterol levels in humans.
Young, tender amaranth leaves, which are related to spinach, are a rich source of niacin, folate, iron, magnesium and phosphorus, and a good source of dietary fiber, protein, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin K, thiamin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, calcium, potassium, copper and manganese, among others.
For centuries amaranth has been valued for its edible seeds, leaves and stems in countries around the world, including Africa, China, Greece, India, Nepal, Pakistan and Tibet.
The ancient Aztecs used amaranth, known as huauhtli, as an important, nutritious part of their diet, as well as a key feature in their rituals and celebrations. During the Aztec month dedicated to Huitzilopochtli, their god of war, sun and human sacrifice, the citizens would craft a giant statue of this god out of amaranth seeds and honey. Between their celebratory dates of Dec. 7 and 26, people held ritual races, staged processions, dances, songs, prayers, and finally human sacrifices that, in addition to the ritual manslaughter, involved mixing the human blood with amaranth seeds. At the end of the festival, the tasty seed and honey statue was cut into small pieces so everybody could eat a little piece of the god.
Modern Mexicans make a treat similar to the Huitzilopochtli god statue by mixing popped amaranth seeds with pumpkin and sesame seeds and cooking them with sugar and blackstrap molasses. Some cooks flavor the sweet bars with lime and cinnamon. Called alegría, which means joy in Spanish, the candy normally is cut into bars, but during the Day of the Dead celebrations, the sweets are molded into shapes such as skulls, flowers and animals.
In India the stems of Joseph’s Coat (Amaranthus tricolor) are eaten like asparagus. The leaves of Amaranthus viridis are the basis of the Caribbean dish callaloo. In the Northeastern Indian state of Manipur, the same plant is known as cheng-kruk; in South India, especially Kerala, it is called kuppacheera. Common in Bengali cuisine, it goes by note shak, which means leafy vegetable. Africans and Maldivians have been eating A. viridis for centuries.
Writing in Australia in 1889, botanist Joseph Maiden wrote that A. viridis “…is an excellent substitute for spinach, being far superior to much of the leaves of the white beet sold … [as a substitute for] spinach in Sydney [Australia]. Next to spinach it seems to be most like boiled nettle leaves, which when young are used in England, and are excellent. This amarantus should be cooked like spinach, and as it becomes more widely known, it is sure to be popular, except amongst persons who may consider it beneath their dignity to have anything to do with so common a weed."
Amaranth was “rediscovered” in the United States in the 1970s. A 1977 article in Science magazine described amaranth as "the crop of the future."
Not Just a Superfood
In the garden, various amaranth species and hybrids add drama to the landscape. Readily available from seed companies is the old-fashioned flower called by the evocative name love- lies-bleeding (A. caudatus). Clusters of long tassels of flower heads made up of hundreds of tiny bright red to pink blooms droop “bleeding” from the 3-foot to 8-foot tall plants. The long-lasting flowers can be used either fresh or dried in arrangements. This ancient species is native to the American tropics, where it was known to be edible, as well as beautiful.
Another striking species of Amaranthus is Joseph’s Coat (A. tricolor). It is grown for the eye-catching red, orange-red and green leaves that adorn the tip of each stalk, which resemble a multi-colored poinsettia. An heirloom plant, it is featured in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello gardens. It loves heat and humidity, making it ideal for our climate.
‘Molten Fire’ is an A. tricolor hybrid that lives up to its name. In midsummer the foliage at the top of each stem turns a dazzling red-maroon. Each red rippled leaf points downward, creating the effect of a brilliant lava flow. The vivid color display lasts into the fall. Like Joseph’s Coat, it thrives in hot, humid weather.
Another highly ornamental amaranth is A. cruentus x A powellii ‘Hopi Red Dye’. Reaching 4 feet to 6 feet tall, the plant is an eye-catching feature in any garden. The outstanding magenta flower plumes have earned it the common name Prince's Feather. Even before the show stopping flowers bloom, the dark maroon foliage and burgundy stems provide plenty of visual interest. Like many other Amaranthus species, the red seedlings are a beautiful addition to a microgreen collection, the colorful baby leaves enliven salads, and the flowers are stunning in bouquets. Allow some flowers to go to seed. They’re delicious and make a good substitute for poppy seeds in recipes. Eat them raw, sprouted, toasted, roasted or ground into flour for baking. The plants attract butterflies, hummingbirds and bees.
Amaranth is an undemanding plant, thriving well in part to full sun. For the most vibrant flowers, it is best that the soil not be too rich. Otherwise the plants will pour their energy into growing tall instead of producing flowers.
In spring, wait until the soil temperature is 65 degree to 75 degrees Fahrenheit before direct sowing the seeds in prepared beds. Either space the seeds 18 inches to 24 inches apart, placing four seeds in each hole and later thinning to the strongest plant, or scatter seeds over loosened soil, rake to bury them and then walk over the bed to tamp them down. Keep the ground moist until the seeds have germinated, which should happen in 10 to 21 days. If you want an early jump on the growing season, next spring start them indoors in mid-March, which is about six weeks before the last expected frost at the lake. Keep the plants moist throughout the growing season.
Each amaranth plant produces thousands of seeds, and they’re easy to harvest. Save what you need for next year’s display in the garden — or let them self-sow — and then use the rest in kitchen. You’ll find plenty of interesting recipes online for using both the plant’s leaves and seeds.