Amaranth: The Superfood Of The Aztec Diet

Amaranth isn’t a single species. Instead, Amaranthus is a complete genus from the family Amaranthaceae. All the annuals and perennials belonging to the genus, amounting to more than 75 individual species, are called amaranths.

We grow some amaranths as ornamental plants, while others are popular as leaf vegetables and pseudocereals. Quite many amaranths are pigweeds. So what is the amaranth plant, what species exist, and how can you include one in your garden? Continue reading to learn more about these intriguing plants.

Amaranthus caudatus, commonly known as love-lies-bleeding, is a widespread species in home gardens grown as ornamental. However, while many gardeners are aware of amaranths’ decorative use, many people often underestimate their use as an edible.

Though it’s not popular in home gardens as a vegetable today, amaranth has popularly been grown for its edible seeds and leaves in the past. It was treasured by the Aztec people from the 15th century, which is quite clear that they sometimes called it the “food of immortality.” Let’s learn more about this beautiful, nutritious plant.

Common NameAmaranth, Pigweed
Botanical NameAmaranthus
Plant TypeAnnual Or Short-lived Perennials
Size (Fully Grown)2 To 7 Feet (About 0,61 To 2,13 Meters)
Sun ExposurePrefers Full Sun But Handles Partial Shade As Well
Soil TypeA Soil That Drains Well But Can Handle Dry Soil Too
Soil pHFrom 6.5 To 7.5
Flower ColorRed
U.S. Hardiness Zones2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, And 11
Native AreaMexico, Central America, And South America

How Many Amaranth Types Are There?

There are around 75 different species within the amaranthus genus and several different varieties for each species. Whether you want to grow them as an ornamental, as a grain, or as a leafy vegetable, you should know which types will work best for the purpose.

Though all amaranths are edible, including ornamentals and weeds, some cultivars are preferred for the higher quality seeds or leaves.

Amaranth Varieties For Pseudocereal

  1. Amaranthus Cruentus
  2. Hypochondriacus
  3. Retroflexus
  4. Caudatus

Amaranth Varieties For Leafy Greens

  1. Amaranthus Blitum
  2. Tricolor
  3. Dubius

Amaranth Varieties For Ornamental Purposes

  1. A. Hypochondriacus (prince’s Feather)
  2. Amaranthus Tricolor (Joseph’s Coat)
  3. Caudatus (Love-Lies-Bleeding)

Weed Amaranthus

  1. Amaranthus Albus
  2. Retroflexus
  3. Spinosus
  4. Viridis

The History Of Amaranth – Food Of Immortality

Amaranth seeds dating 7000 to 8000 years back in archeological sites of Argentina suggest that amaranth’s earliest cultivation began somewhere in the mid-Holocene era.

Archeologists have found that A. cruentas was the earliest cultivar, domesticated near 6000 years ago. This cultivar was discovered in Tehuacan Puebla caves in Mexico, an archeological site dating back to 4000BC.

Amaranth’s history is connected mainly to the traditions of the pre-Columbian New World. There’s evidence that the mighty Aztec empire that ruled central Mexico in the 15th and 16th AD used it extensively. Amaranth was cultivated in similar quantities as maize and beans by the Aztecs. But, unlike other grain crops, amaranth also had spiritual significance.

Amaranth seeds were collected and used for ceremonial purposes, particularly honoring Huitzilopochtli, the god of war, involving human sacrifices. In addition, it was a significant ingredient in ritual drinks and foods.

Besides its deeply embedded history in the Americas, archeological evidence also shows its early existence in South Asia and China. For example, excavations have found seeds in Nathan, India, dating back 1000 to 800 BC. It’s popular in Indian culture even today, with names like ‘rajgira’ meaning ‘king seed’ and ‘ramdana’ meaning ‘seed sent from god.’

The Revival

While the species lost its popularity somewhere through history, interest in the grain revived towards the end of the 20th century. This is because it’s easy to grow, easy to cook, and is very nutritious.

Amaranth has recently captured much attention as a superfood because it contains a good amount of protein, particularly those suited to human needs, and is a good source of vitamins and minerals.
© cat_arch_angel – stock.adobe.com

What Does The Amaranth Plant Look Like?

Amaranth is a set of many species, as already highlighted. But, they collectively exhibit more or less the same characteristics and look pretty much alike. The genera include annuals and short-lived perennials with tall, erect, or bushy growth, extending to a height of 2 to 7 feet (about 0,61 to 2,13 meters), depending on the species.

Roots

Amaranth often has a pinkish taproot, with several secondary fibrous roots extending deeper into the ground.

Leaves

Stems on the amaranth plants are often reddish and sometimes have spines. They bear alternately or oppositely arranged leaves, oval or diamond in shape. They are without stipules and have toothed margins. The leaves’ color varies between different amaranthus species, ranging from light to dark green, reddish or variegated.

Flowers

Depending on the species of amaranth, the plant can be bisexual or unisexual. The plant produces dense, showy inflorescences, including several tiny flowers that are radially symmetrical. Each flower has 4 to 5 petals, often joined.

The size and length of inflorescences differ among species and can either be bent or stand upright. The flower color can range from different shades of maroon to crimson, depending on the species.

Seeds

Each plant can produce thousands of seeds, ranging in color between white, yellow, pink, and black. But, most amaranth seeds sold commercially are yellow. They are borne in dry capsule fruits, with a single seed in each fruit.

In What Conditions Does Amaranth Grow Best In?

Given that it grows as a weed in many regions, growing amaranth in your garden shouldn’t be a problem. In addition, they can handle a more comprehensive range of soils than other vegetable crops.

Once the plant is established, amaranths are very tolerant of drought. Though there isn’t much technicality in growing amaranth, it can help if you can learn a little about its growing preferences.

Temperature

Unlike most leafy greens, amaranths thrive in warmer climates. Therefore, most growers plant it in the garden once the last frost of the spring has passed or started indoors a bit earlier for an earlier harvest.

Amaranth seeds need warm soil to germinate, and they get easily damaged by spring frost. However, several species are native to Mexico and the southern US, which are very resilient to heat and can be grown through the hottest summer months.

Soil And Sun

In the northern zones, amaranth will thrive best in full sun. But, in warmer zones, it will appreciate some afternoon shade to grow its best. The plant easily adapts to most soil types and will even grow in poor soils. Heavy clay might be unsuitable for most species. But, well-drained, moderately fertile loamy soils are best for their growth.

Water And Fertilizer

Amaranth plants are sufficiently drought-tolerant once they’re established. Young plants will enjoy regular watering but avoid offering more than an inch (about 2,5 cm) of water each week.

Excessively moist soil can promote root rot and fungal diseases.
You can amend the soil with a light application of organic fertilizer before planting the seeds if your soil is low in nutrients.

There’s no need for fertilizer through the growing season since the plant isn’t a heavy feeder. In fact, an excessive amount of nitrogen in the soil results in leggy growth and will negatively affect your harvest.

Is It Safe To Eat / Consume Amaranth?

Amaranth has an impressive nutritional profile. Though it has gained renewed popularity over the recent years, the grain has existed as a dietary staple of many ancient civilizations.

It’s packed with fibers, proteins, and manganese and is a good source of phosphorus, iron, and magnesium. But, how safe is it to consume for different individuals? Is it a good idea to include amaranth as part of your regular diet? Let’s find out.

Pregnant And Breastfeeding Women

Amaranth seeds are rich in folates and iron. So it’s healthy to consume during pregnancy. Rich in essential nutrients, it’s also an excellent food for breastfeeding women and can help stimulate milk production.

But, avoid use as a medicine since there isn't reliable information about its safety in excessive amounts.

Children

Amaranth seeds are a safe first food for your child and can be started as early as six months of age. It’s gluten-free, easily digestible, and a good source of proteins and irons, essential for a child’s early development.

People With Allergies

Allergies related to amaranth consumption are infrequent. But, if you experience skin irritation, eczema, hives, asthma, or gastric problems, contact a doctor.

People With Diabetes

Amaranth is gluten-free, very nutritious, and can help manage blood sugar levels for people with diabetes. But, since it has a high glycemic index of 107, it’s advisable to track your amaranth grain consumption.

Pets

Amaranthus varieties are non-toxic to pets. You can safely grow them in your garden, even if you have pets. Believe it or not, the seeds are often included in commercial dog foods to promote a nutritious diet.

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