Amaranth is a warm season crop that requires full sun. Best germination occurs when soil temperatures range from 65 to 75°F (18-24°C). For southern Canada and the northern U.S., this usually means a late May or early June planting. Seeds should be sown no more than one-quarter inch deep in rows one and a half to two feet (45-60 cm) apart. Soil moisture is probably sufficient until early June to germinate the seed. Given good soil moisture, don't water until the plants reach the two or three leaf stage. Amaranth keeps on flowering until hit by the first hard frost. Seed will often ripen many weeks before that, usually after about three months. The best way to determine if seeds are harvestable is to gently but briskly shake or rub the flower heads between your hands and see if the seeds fall readily. The best time to harvest amaranth commercially is in dry weather three to seven days after first frost.(1)
Amaranth is the common name for plants in the amaranthus family. It is a broad-leafed, bushy plant that grows about six feet (1.8 meters) tall. It produces a brightly colored flower that can contain up to 60,000 seeds. The seeds are nutritious and can be made into a flour. Not a true grain, amaranth is often called a pseudocereal, like its relative quinoa (2)
There are around 60 different species of amaranth, and a few of them are native to Mesoamerica (2).
Culinary and Medicinal Uses
This plant can be grown in a variety of different growing conditions, which makes it more suitable to grow than quinoa. Three species of amaranth - Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus hypochondriacus, and Amaranthus caudatus - are grown for the edible seeds. Amaranth is gluten free and its seeds contain about 30 percent more protein than rice, sorghum, and rye, according to a USDA Forest Service report. Amaranth is considered a “complete” protein because it contains lysine, which is an amino acid missing in many other grains (1). In addition, amaranth has been shown to reduce cholesterol levels. However, research on amaranth is relatively recent, so scientists do not have a complete understanding of the plants’ nutritional benefits. Because Amaranth is gluten free it can be used to make gluten free flour.
Significance to Cultural Communities
Amaranth gets its name from the Greek word amaranton which means “unwilting.” The plant symbolized immortality because it was easy to grow and quite hardy. Amaranth was known as huauhtli in the Aztec culture, and made up to 80% of their diet. The aztec month of panquetzaliztli in December was dedicated to the aztec god Huitzilopochtli, or “left handed hummingbird.” People would create statues of the god during the festivities. These giant statues were made of amaranth, honey, and sometimes blood. Some people would even participate in fasting before the final festivities of the month, when the giant edible statue was distributed among the people. Every citizen would therefore eat a piece of the god. When the Spaniards arrived, they viewed these practices as heathen, outlawed amaranth in the region, and punished anyone who used the plant. As a result, amaranth never made its way into mainstream culture and only continued to be used in certain parts of the region. In modern day Mexico, people use amaranth similarly for their cultural traditions. For dia de los muertos, skulls are created using amaranth and honey. People will also leave raw amaranth seeds on the altar to offer snacks to the wandering ancestral spirits.
1. Howard, Brian Clark. “Amaranth: Another Ancient Wonder Food, But Who Will Eat It?” National geographic. August 2014. http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/08/130812-amaranth-oaxaca-mexico-obesity-puente-food/
2. “Amaranth - May Grain of the Month”. OldWays Whole Grains Council. http://wholegrainscouncil.org/whole-grains-101/amaranth-may-grain-of-the-month-0
3. “Growing Amaranth and Quinoa (Dan's Scoop)”. Salt Spring Seeds. http://www.saltspringseeds.com/pages/growing-amaranth-and-quinoa-dans-scoop
4. Coe, S.D. (1994). America's First Cuisines. University of Texas Press. ISBN 9780292711594.