It may be the oldest cultivated grain in the Western Hemisphere. It predates maize by centuries. When the first corn was still weedy grass called teosinte in southern Mexico, the people of the region were growing an earlier grain. It’s the sophisticated ancestor of our garden pig weed, which has carried many settlers through rough times with its edible foliage.
Today’s heirloom seed catalogs still carry these little known grains that deserve more attention as solutions for a changing climate. They first gained interest with a seed grown Victorian garden darling, Amaranthus caudatus, romantically named love-lies-bleeding. It’s a big green annual that produces bright red dangling flowers that look like a long house cat tail. They are still beloved by flower arrangers seeking that perfect look to spill off edges of larger compositions. Unfortunately, while this is not considered a food crop per se, it remains an edible ornamental heirloom flower.
That is why its cousin the grain amaranth is such a great plant for Western gardens. It’s easy to grow, fun to look at and infinitely edible. These are massive annuals grown from seed each year. They can be as tall as corn and topped with great fluffy brightly colored flower heads. Many are blood red, but others are yellow and orange, even green. This brings exciting color and unusual textures into both food and flower gardens.
When young and tender, leaves of amaranth are an ancient pot green. It’s enjoyed earlier in the season or fresh picked later. Seed is produced after the plants flower and are pollinated. It is tiny and usually black, nearly identical to that of quinoa. It has been traditional to pop amaranth seed on a hot grill to make it palatable without water.
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Sow your amaranths in full sun around the last frost of the year. Be aware of the height and color of the varieties you are sowing. Elephant head amaranth is more shrubby in form so it’s used in a different scenario than the tall stalks. Some folks sow a row in the vegetable garden for plenty of leaves and seed. Work them into sunny spots around your yard that need a visual change both in form and color. Because they’re seed-grown there is little expense trying them out in your garden, and the discoveries will be awesome.
After flower heads mature and seed is released, gather from the field. Just bend the head down into a paper shopping bag and shake out the tiny black seed. This allows gathering repeatedly over the late season rather than cutting and drying all at once. The nuclear option is to cut the head off and hang upside-down to release its contents in more controlled condition indoors.
There’s another fun heirloom called Hopi Dye Amaranth. This is a red-tinged plant that is utilized in the preparation of tribal piki bread. It’s a pink-tinged flatbread that is an important part of their traditional cuisine and corn culture.
Amaranth has long been a poor farmer’s forage in dry climates around the world. It is entirely edible, so livestock can graze on its remnants for a more diverse diet. At the end of the season your chickens will go crazy teasing out lingering seed from spent flower heads. Feed your birds early amaranth greens for a balanced diet.
If you need a sudden accent indoors, fresh cut amaranth in flower is a great resource. Creative gardeners should start by growing a number of different varieties to allow experimenting with them in arrangements. They are useful during the late summer when little else is still blooming in the heat.
Corn gets all the glory, but paleo Amaranth is due for a huge comeback. This earliest grain is a lifesaver and offers new opportunities for gardening in a changing climate. There’s one thing for sure, if it goes drier, we’ll be growing grain amaranth for the very same reasons the Anasazi did a thousand years ago: drought.
Maureen Gilmer is an author, horticulturist and landscape designer. Learn more at www.MoPlants.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 891, Morongo Valley, CA 92256.
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