Alluring, attractive and adaptable, Amaranthus has been grown by American gardeners for thousands and thousands of years, and by "American gardeners" I mean people growing stuff in the Western hemisphere. Early people in the Americas (North, Central and South) grew Amaranth along with corn and quinoa. It was taken to the Old World (the Eastern Hemisphere), and today its leaves and its grain-like seeds are important staples in Africa and Asia.
The plant in the thumbnail, Amaranthus tricolor is often called "Joseph's Coat"because of its many colors. It's also goes by Summer Poinsettia, Tampala, Chinese Spinach, Vegetable Amaranth or Een Choy. Amaranthus caudatus was a favorite of Victorian gardners; they called it "Love-Lies-Bleeding," perhaps referring to the long, red, drooping flower spikes.
Amaranthus also has names like pigweed, tasselflower or autumn colors. It might reseed like a weed, and pigweed is a major agricultural problem, but the bronze, coral, orange, green, yellow, maroon, red, brown or gold foliage and flower heads will add drama, excitement and stature to your garden in summer and fall, continuing to bloom until frost.
As an ornamental, Amaranth is attractive and relatively carefree. It should be started indoors 3 to 6 weeks before the last projected frost date in your area, although it seems certain that ancient societies direct-seeded it (lacking indoor lighting). Different cultivars are called "grain Amaranth" and "leaf Amaranth," or "edible Amaranth" and "ornamental Amaranth." However, all Amaranthus species are edible (both seeds and leaves) and all may be attractive.
Its muticolored tassels make an artistic back-of-the border annual; the plants may get 4-8 ft. tall if the site is sunny and fertile. Where Amaranth receives less sun or the soil is lean, it will grow just as well, although not as tall.
Harvest the leaves (which resemble beet greens or spinach) early if you wish to eat them raw, as they will be more tender then. If you harvest the leaves when they are full-grown, you should probably cook them, stir-frying or blanching them.
You will notice birds eating any seeds which ripen. The tiny (itsy, bitsy, teeny, weeny) seeds are edible on all varieties of Amaranth. They can be popped like popcorn or cooked with 2-3 times as much water, like rice, quinoa or beans. Popped Amaranth seeds are added to candy in Mexico (picture left), along the lines of a Nestle Crunch® bar of chocolate wtth puffed rice. Amaranth seed in Mexican candy tasted like to me like sesame seed candy. Amaranth seeds make a nutitritious, gluten-free food and can also be bought at health food stores nation-wide.
Different cultivars are different colors and may offer more of the beautiful seed-heads or more of the edible foliage depending on which one you select. Again, all are edible.
Whether you're looking for landscaping you can eat, a colorful salad green, a hot weather ornamental, a Victorian-style garden plant, or a nutrient-packed seed, Amaranth be just what you seek. Does it have a place in your garden? Next spring, consider adding amazing Amaranth as an attractive edible annual.
pictures copyright DavidofDeLand, Carrie Lamont and Xenomorf
For further reading:
History of amaranth Amaranth growers
Growing and harvesting amaranth \ from "Heirloom Organics"
How to grow amaranth from Backyard Gardening Blog
How to grow amaranth and why from Tropical Permaulture