Yes, amaranth is stunning through summer and fall, but colorful beauty isn't this attractive annual's only calling card. It's tasty and nutritious, too. Amaranth leaves can be used in salads, and its seeds can be cooked and eaten as a hot cereal or a chilled salad.
Need more convincing? Amaranth's easy to grow, thrives in heat and adapts readily to a wide range of growing conditions.
The Amaranthus genus includes more than 60 species. Though Amaranthus hypochondriacus is the most common type grown in the U.S., A. cruentus, A. caudatus and A. tricolor, also known as Joseph's Coat or summer poinsettia, are also popular.
Amaranth, best grown from seed, thrives in full sun. In spring, after the danger of frost has passed, sow seeds about ¼-inch deep into a garden bed amended with organic materials, such as compost, well-aged manure or worm castings.
Amaranth seeds are small and more fragile than larger seeds, like corn or wheat. Tiny seedlings can struggle to break though the soil if a thin crust forms after a rain. For best results, avoid planting amaranth in heavy clay soil, and keep the growing area moist and weed-free. Once plants are established, amaranth grows well in dry, sunny conditions.
Space plants 2 to 3 feet apart, depending on the size of the variety. If you're growing amaranth for baby greens, space the plants a bit closer together. As you thin seedlings, throw the delicious thinnings into salads. Taller varieties can grow 4 to 8 feet high, so they'll need staking. Place stakes early to avoid damaging plant roots. Feed amaranth with a balanced fertilizer at planting time.
Though amaranth seeds are tiny—only slightly larger than poppy seeds—they can grow into 6-foot-tall plants.
harvesting leaves and seeds
Typically, you can start harvesting cut-and-come-again amaranth leaves in 30 to 40 days. To maximize leaf production, remove the flowers. If you'd like to harvest the seeds, however, allow several of the colorful flowers to go to seed. Harvest seed heads, which can have up to 50,000 seeds each, before they become dry and brittle. Lay them inside a paper or cloth bag to finish drying.
Remove seeds by beating the heads together over a cloth or by rubbing the seed heads gently while wearing gloves. Remove debris or dirt with a small mesh screen. When seeds are completely clean and dry, store them away from heat and direct sunlight in an airtight container.
Lygus bugs can be pests on amaranth plants, but organic pesticides can help combat these critters.
Amaranth can suffer from pests and diseases. One effective way to control these problems is crop rotation. Don't grow amaranth, beets, Swiss chard, spinach, quinoa or other members of the Chenopodiaceae family in the same garden spot more than once every three years.
Although no viruses or serious bacterial diseases have been noted on amaranth, the plant can suffer from fungal diseases. To reduce the risk, plant amaranth in a sunny spot with well-drained soil, mulch well and avoid wetting the foliage by watering at the root level. If you must water overhead, irrigate in the morning so plants can dry before evening.
Beetles, alfalfa webworms and lygus bugs (Lygus lineolaris, above) are some common amaranth pests. Tough plants can survive quite a bit of insect damage, but you can use organic insecticides with pyrethrin, or products with Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), if necessary.
edible and nutritious
Amaranth, often called an ancient grain, was cherished by the Incas, Aztecs and early American cultures. Thomas Jefferson was said to have grown amaranth at Monticello. Today amaranth is a culinary crop in Africa, China, India, Russia and Nepal.
Amaranth offers many health benefits. Its leaves are as nutritious as spinach, which often bolts from the hot sun right about the time amaranth starts thriving. Similar to quinoa, its seeds are unusually high in protein for a non-legume, with more protein than oats, corn or wheat. Amaranth seeds and leaves are also high in fiber and contain iron, calcium, potassium, zinc and vitamin B6. Amaranth seeds are also rich in the amino acid lysine, a plus for vegetarians.
Try small, young amaranth leaves in salads. Use the older, larger leaves in stir-fry dishes or with steamed vegetables. Seeds can be sprouted and used on sandwiches and salads like sunflower sprouts.
Hot cooked amaranth seeds can be served instead of Rice with stir fries and casseroles. Another option is to cook the seeds and eat them instead of oatmeal for a hot breakfast: Add fresh berries, honey, apple slices, cinnamon and a touch of milk. Amaranth seeds, which have a slightly sweet, nutty taste, can also be served cold as a tabbouleh-style dish.
Amaranth flour, which is made commercially from ground amaranth seeds, can be used in baking. But, because it's free of gluten, it must be mixed with glutinous flours to make leavened bread.
8 amazing amaranths
Have fun experimenting with any of these eight amaranth varieties. Some are more prized for their edible seeds or leaves. Others are more commonly grown for their decorative foliage and unusual flowers.
- ‘Autumn Palette' (A. cruentus) features bronze-tipped, pistachio-green plumes with tasty leaves and seeds. It reaches 3 to 4 feet high.
- Burgundy (A. hypochondriacus, above) soars 6 to 8 feet high with leaves and stems that turn from green to reddish burgundy. Its seeds are white and delicious.
- Edible red leaf (A. tricolor) grows to only 2 feet. Its leaves, which mature in 45 to 55 days, have a hearty spinach flavor that's sweet and slightly tangy. It's also suitable for ornamental gardens with its showy green foliage striped with red.
- ‘Golden Giant' (A. cruentus, above) sports green foliage and golden flower heads that produce up to 1 pound of white seeds. It reaches 6 feet high.
- ‘Hopi Red Dye' (A. cruentus x A. powelli, above) features deep red leaves and flowers. Hopi Indians used this variety as a dye in ceremonial foods. It grows 4 to 6 feet high.
- Love-lies-bleeding (A. caudatus, above) is an heirloom variety famous for long, red, rope-like flowers that produce excellent seeds. It features leaves long used for cooked greens. It reaches 3 to 4 feet high.
- ‘Molten Fire' (A. tricolor) offers stunning crimson-maroon foliage with dark-red seed heads. Reaching about 4 feet high, this colorful plant adds a dramatic spark to garden beds.
- ‘Perfecta' (A. tricolor, above) draws applause with wavy-margined leaves of bright red and yellow. Favored by Thomas Jefferson, it also goes by the common name Joseph's Coat and summer poinsettia. It reaches 3 feet high and works well as a temporary hedge.
Master gardener and garden writer Teresa O'Connor lives in Idaho. She's the co-author of Grocery Gardening: Planting, Preparing & Preserving Fresh Foods (Cool Springs Press).
Amarmath thrives in a raised bed garden just outside of Quebec City, Canada.
Photos by Sarah Dorison, Bill Johnson and Mark Turner.