All Amaranths are annuals or short lived perennials with oval, pointed leaves of various colours, which are followed by minute flowers borne on (sometimes drooping), tassel-like spikes that last until the end of summer. These then give way to copious seeds. Originally spelled “amarant,” the derivation is from the Greek amarantos, meaning “unwilting.” Cultural and literary references to this plant are too many to name, but include an excerpt on everlasting beauty by Aesop from the 6th century BC:
A Rose and an Amaranth blossomed side by side in a garden,
and the Amaranth said to her neighbour,
“How I envy you your beauty and your sweet scent!
No wonder you are such a universal favourite.”
But the Rose replied with a shade of sadness in her voice,
“Ah, my dear friend, I bloom but for a time:
my petals soon wither and fall, and then I die.
But your flowers never fade, even if they are cut;
for they are everlasting.”
Amaranth has been harvested as a food crop for as long as 20,000 years. It is widely listed as an Asian vegetable because of its popularity in Chinese cuisine, and its various Chinese names include yin tsoi, hinn choy, een choy, or xian cai. In Chinese cuisine, the leaves of A. tricolor, known as red-leaf amaranth, are used in soups and stir-fried dishes. Various green leafed species have been gathered from the wild for millennia from Asia to Greece and used as cooking greens. The genus contains around 70 species. The wider family, Amaranthaceae, includes beets, quinoa, spinach, and Swiss chard.
The variety to grow for grain on the West Coast is A. hypochondriacus. (In botanical Latin, hypochondriacus refers to a melancholy or somber appearance.) It also produces tasty leaves, as useful in Asian dishes as those of A. tricolor, but is primarily grown for the edible seeds it produces.
The leaves of many varieties can be cut repeatedly, and will grow back as long as the weather is warm. When still young, the raw leaves are succulent, but mature leaves are better (and more easily digested) when steamed very briefly — a shorter cooking time than spinach. If cooked, eat them all at once, and don’t reheat them, as nitrates in the leaves tend to convert to nitrite, which is not good eating. The flavour of the leaves is nutty, and slightly hot, with the earthy undertones of spinach.
The seeds are harvested as a grain crop in Africa and Asia, and can be collected from plants grown on the Coast — particularly after a hot summer, for the plant really likes the heat. A. hypochondriacus does very well in the southern Gulf Islands as well as arid parts of the southern interior of BC. The seeds can be boiled as a cereal or ground into flour for use in tortillas and other flat breads. Amaranth flour is not self-rising, but it adds a nice, nutty flavour when blended with other flours and baked. Amaranth seeds can also be toasted, popped in hot oil like popcorn, or used to produce nutritious sprouts and microgreens.
The leaves of Amaranth contain significantly high levels of vitamins A, B6, K, riboflavin, and folate, as well as the minerals manganese, zinc, potassium, phosphorus, copper, magnesium, iron, and calcium. The seeds are exceptionally high in protein — higher than wheat, and without the gluten.
Treat Amaranth as you would corn, planting it only when the soil has become reliably warm, not before May 15th on the Coast. The flowers will remain until after frost, at which point (if the weather has been dry), the shiny black seeds can be shaken from drying plants, left to dry a bit longer, and then stored for months.
The Festival of Olives and Amaranth takes place in neighbourhoods around Mexico City each year, from January to early February. Amaranth hotcakes and various olive oils are free for sampling in Xochimilco each year. Traditional Mexican folk dances are performed every day during the festival.
How to Grow:
Difficulty: Easy. Decorative varieties are well suited to large containers, as are plants grown for greens. Grown for seed, Amaranth is better suited to a warm vegetable bed or border.
Timing: Direct sow in spring, once the weather warms up after mid-May.
Sowing: Sow all varieties just below the soil surface. Seeds should germinate in 10-17 days. Space or thin to 20-30cm (8-12”) apart, or up to 50cm (20”) apart for larger varieties.
Soil: Select a partially sunny to fully exposed location in well-drained soil. The soil quality is not critical. Poor soils may produce more vibrant flowers, but soil rich in nitrogen and phosphorus may produce much larger plants. Aim for a pH between 6.0 and 7.0.
Growing: Spring weather will probably keep the soil sufficiently moist until the plants are established, but water deeply in very hot weather. While it is extremely drought tolerant, steady growth will produce better flowers and seeds.
Harvest: Cut young leaves for eating raw or mature leaves for cooking. Avoid harvesting the leaves if the plants are being grown for seed. Seeds can be collected by rubbing the flower stalks between your hands over a bowl or bucket. Many species of small garden birds enjoy the seeds, and they may be the best indication that the seeds are ripe and ready for harvest. Be sure to dry the seeds in an airy place after harvest to prevent mould.
Storage: Amaranth grain is quite oily, so store it in a sealed glass or plastic container in a cupboard. Air, moisture, and sunlight can cause the oils to turn rancid.
Seed info: In optimum conditions at least 75% of seeds will germinate. Soil temperature for germination: 18-24°C (65-75°F). Usual seed life: 1 year.
Growing for seed: Isolate leaf amaranths by 160m (500’), as the plants are wind-pollinated. Grain amaranths require complete isolation if genetic purity is the intent.
Pests & Disease: A few insects may damage young seedlings, but amaranth is largely disease and pest free, particularly when grown on a small scale. Use Companion Planting with Umbelifers to eliminate insect pests.