February has arrived, and with it continual reminders that Valentine's Day is rapidly approaching. As our thoughts turn to the subject of love, let's focus our attention on a captivating plant with the intriguing name "Love Lies Bleeding."
I've been fascinated with this particular member of the amaranth family, Amaranthus caudatus, ever since I first heard its common name, also sometimes written with dashes, as Love-Lies-Bleeding. Apparently others have been similarly intrigued by the name, as Elton John wrote a song with the same title, and a variety of movies carry the same name. Our focus is the garden, however, so we'll limit our attention to the plant. It is an annual, passing from seed to maturity in a single season in all but the very warmest of climates (zones 10-11). Even there it is relatively short-lived as a perennial. You can try it out in your garden without making a permanent place for it. In the flower world, annuals are the first dates, while perennials demand long-term commitments! While the genus name, Amaranthus, comes from the Greek word amarantos, which means unfading, it refers to the long-lasting blooms, rather than the lifespan of the plant. Its species name, caudatus, means with a tail, the meaning of which is clear as soon as you see the long, swinging strings of blooms that droop, sometimes from the very top of the plant to ground level.
Love Lies Bleeding
Amaranthus has been a staple in decorative gardens for centuries. It gained popularity during the Victorian age, when flowers were imbued with meanings, and the gift of a hand-picked bouquet could transmit meaning to the recipient without need for any card or explanation. In the Victorian language of flowers, Love Lies Bleeding represented hopelessness, or hopeless love. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there is also a religious significance attached to Love Lies Bleeding, referring to the self-sacrifice of Jesus. I found this interesting quote, while researching the significance attached to the flower:
"The deepest teaching of Love-Lies-Bleeding is centered around the meaning of compassion and sacrifice. This realization within the soul is often called Christ consciousness, the capacity to suffer or to bleed not for ourselves but for all of humanity and for the redemption of the Earth itself." 1
Beautiful specimen at Monticello
Even before the Victorians placed significance on the amaranth plant as a decorative feature in their garden, it held an established place as an agricultural crop. If it is true that "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," then perhaps this more practical use would be more appropriate. There is a long history of the use of amaranthus for culinary purposes. Its use as a food has been documented on nearly every continent. "For many centuries, the leaves and seeds of Amaranthus species have been sources of food for native people from North and South America to Asia, India, Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean region, and Eurasia. Amaranth was the principal grain crop of the Aztecs and known as the 'golden grain of the gods' until all the fields and seeds were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors."2
Researchers from Washington State University describe its prolific use this way: "A staple grain of the Incas, Aztecs, and other pre-Columbian peoples, amaranth was once almost as widely dispersed throughout the Americas as corn. The most important Andean species is Amaranthus caudatus. In Quechua, the ancient Inca language that is still spoken in the Andes, it is called 'kiwicha' (pronounced kee-wee-cha)."3 With all the concerns about biodiversity and the extinction of plant species, there has been a resurgence of interest in bringing back some of the grains that were used long before wheat and corn became the staples. Just recently, I came across a variety of bread flour called Ancient Grains, and found amaranth on the list of ingredients! Apparently, you can also pop the seed, just as you would do with popcorn. The resulting popped kernels are smaller than popcorn, but otherwise very similar.
However you choose to use the plant, as an ornamental or as a highly nutritious food source, there are a few basics you should know about its cultivation. Love Lies Bleeding is drought tolerant, and thrives on heat. It requires full sun, so plant it somewhere it can take full advantage of that hot summer sun. It is less happy in soil that doesn't drain well, however, and some cultivars are reported to not fare well in constant humidity.
It is relatively easy to grow from seed, and it self-seeds prolifically, to the point that it has been labeled invasive or noxious in certain parts of the world. I was surprised to learn that it is a distant cousin to pig weed, Amaranthus retroflexus. I encountered pig weed as a teenager, when I walked beans as a summer job in the days before Round-up Ready soybeans. I still occasionally find a few stray plants of pig weed in my vegetable garden, and it stirs almost a fond feeling whenever I encounter it, though not enough to make me hesitate to uproot it.
In affairs of the heart, we can all use a little support from our friends, and Love Lies Bleeding is no exception. There are quite a few different cultivars that fall under the umbrella of amaranthus caudatus, with varying colors, forms, and sizes, but nearly all require some sort of staking or support once the long, flowing flowers begin to form. A few are upright, but even those might benefit from a little support if they are subjected to winds. The many cultivars boast intriguing names, worthy of standing alongside a name like Love Lies Bleeding. The first one I grew was the cultivar Dreadlocks, and it came in a mixed pack of seeds titled "Strange and Unusual," which incidentally also included such oddballs as Eyeball Plant, Easter Egg Plant, and Candy Corn snapdragons. It definitely fit the bill, as the plant towered over the other plants in the back of my border, and sent long knotted tendrils drooping nearly to the ground. Unfortunately, I located it in an area that did not receive full sun, so it did not reach its full potential. Nevertheless, it became quite a conversation piece in my garden!
One of the advantages of Amaranthus caudatus is that it offers a very different shape and texture to your garden. The long, drooping tendrils are an effective foil to more upright or rounded flowers, such as daylilies or coneflower daisies. The blooms also have a funny, fuzzy texture, which offers a nice contrast to smoother textured flowers. The older forms of the plant tend to be surprisingly tall for an annual, and make a good specimen for the back of a border, or the center of a rounded bed that can be seen from all sides.
A slightly shorter version, called Ponytails, can be located in the middle of the border where it is more visible. It tends to form into more rounded clumps, almost like a series of popcorn balls strung together on a line. If you prefer a more upright plant, there are cultivars that send their spikes skyward, instead of the familiar drooping form. Two curious specimens in this category areFat Spikes and Opopeo. These in particular would be attactive in a container, giving a vertical element to balance softer, drooping flowers. Alternately, the trailing forms can be used as a foil for more upright plants in a container.
Love Lies Bleeding in a windowbox floral arrangement
Coral Fountains in a planter
There are also many different colors of Love Lies Bleeding, ranging from the expected shades of red, coral, and purple, to more uncommon varieties in verdant green. The fresh, youthful green of this particular cultivar makes me think of young love, and those first childhood crushes. This cultivar, which ranges from nearly white to a yellowish green, is called Veridis.
With so many different cultivars of Amaranthus caudatus available, you might just find yourself falling in love with this unique plant in your own garden!
2 Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation, produced by an Ad Hoc Panel of the National Research Council led by Noel Vietmeyer and published in 1989 by the National Academy Press in Washington, D.C. (available for reading online at http://books.nap.edu/books/030904264X/html/R1.html#pagetop):
You may hover your mouse over any image to see the cultivar,when known, and the photographer. The pictures in this article come from a variety of sources. The primary source is PlantFiles, located right here at Dave's Garden. I would like to thank these Dave's Garden members, who submitted their pictures to PlantFiles. I really enjoyed corresponding with some of these Dave's Garden members!
Thumbnail image at start of article and Coral Fountains: onewish1
First image of Love Lies Bleeding: Kathy Rinke (Tree_Climber) of Rinkland Daylilies
Love Lies Bleeding at Monticello: TC Conner (tcfromky), The Write Gardener
Pictures in first table: Otleygarden, broots, and Summerhawk
Image in last table of Veridis: justbetweenus
The remaining pictures of Dreadlocks, the windowbox, and the two differently colored plants growing together were found in Photobucket, and were free for use. The photographers were listed as JMosberger, la fattina, and Sprayman, respectively.
Thank you for reading! Please feel free to share your own stories and pictures in the comment section below!
About Angela Carson
I was bitten hard by the gardening bug when I was just a child, and have been doing my best to infect as many people as possible ever since! I particularly have a passion for spring bulbs and home-grown vegetables, which I am teaching the next generation how to preserve. My two sons have obviously inherited my interest in growing things, and my husband is starting to see the benefits of less lawn to mow, as long as he doesn't have to do the work of digging up new beds for my latest schemes!