If you surveyed gardeners and asked them to pick a few crops they would plant in order to survive on a deserted island, you would hear answers such as the three sisters: corn, beans and squash, or other garden favorites such as tomatoes and peppers. But there’s a less familiar choice that deserves a place of honor on any list of foods for self-sufficiency. Amaranth is one of the most nutritious, easy-to-grow and well-adapted — not to mention visually spectacular — plants on the planet.
Amaranth grows to head-high or taller in an array of gorgeous colors and shapes, and it can provide year-round sustenance. In early summer, the young greens are a delicious addition to salads, with a flavor similar to spinach. Throughout the growth cycle, the larger leaves are healthful and delicious when steamed, sautéed or used in soups. During the heat of the summer, the plants will mature into a regal garden display. In the fall, mature seed heads will yield many ounces of protein-packed seeds with a rich, nutty taste.
Not only are the seeds high in protein (about 16 percent compared to 10 percent in most whole grains), but the protein has a balanced amino acid profile especially high in lysine, which is rare for plant foods and essential to humans for protein synthesis. Combining amaranth with other grains complements their protein and boosts their nutritional value. Amaranth seeds also contain generous amounts of calcium, iron, phosphorous and fiber. The leaves are high in protein, as well as beta carotene, iron, calcium and fiber. All this nutrition and flavor comes from a plant that requires little water and can grow in almost any type of soil. It’s no wonder amaranth is often dubbed a “superfood.”
The genus Amaranthus contains at least 60 species, according to David Brenner, curator for amaranth in the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System based in Beltsville, Md. Brenner is the world record holder for the tallest amaranth plant (15 feet, 1 inch tall!) and maintains 3,000 accessions of amaranths from all over the world at the Plant Introduction Station at Iowa State University.
Other major collections of amaranth varieties are housed in India, China, Peru and Mexico. While the conservation of amaranth diversity is important for maintaining breeding stock, the most useful and widely grown species for food production include the grain species A. hypochondriacus, A. cruentus and A. caudatus, while A. tricolor is grown for its tender greens.
“The real momentum with amaranth these days is in Africa,” Brenner says, “especially through the work of Davidson Mwangi, a plant breeder in Nairobi who is promoting amaranth as a way to alleviate hunger at the village level.” Mwangi and others are also researching amaranth’s potential to combat heart disease and aid in recovery from surgery.
Golden Grain of the Aztecs
Amaranth is such a highly productive crop that it’s no surprise this plant was revered for millennia by ancient cultures and has since spread across the planet. The first known record of amaranth is from about 6,000 years ago and was found in a mountain cave near Mexico City. When the Spanish showed up on the scene in the 1500s, amaranth was being widely cultivated by the Aztecs, who called it “Huautli” and used it in a variety of their foods. It also was an integral part of their religious practice — they made figurines from the puffed seeds, mixing them with honey or blood, as offerings to the gods.
Amaranth also was used to a lesser degree by the ancient Inca culture in South America, where it is still found and known by the name “Kiwichi.” But in modern times, the most widespread use may be in Asia — especially in India — where it is both a leaf and grain crop.ominique Guillet, a French seedsman and founder of the Kokopelli Seed Foundation, which works to supply free organic, heirloom seeds to poor farmers worldwide, says thousands of amaranth varieties are still surviving in India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka, including 3,000 varieties in a single seed bank in India. “It is the perfect crop for poor farmers,” Guillet says. “It grows in poor soils without irrigation, it is easy to harvest and thresh without machinery, and it provides high-quality protein, second only to mothers’ milk.” Guillet also loves amaranth because it is so productive. “From one plant, from one tiny seed, you can get more than 100,000 seeds, maybe more!”
Grow Your Own “Supergrain”
Amaranth thrives in warm weather, but it is a versatile crop that grows well even in regions with shorter growing seasons, including Canada and Maine. Once soils have warmed up in the spring, around the time to sow corn, start by preparing a fine seedbed to accommodate the tiny seeds. A hundred square feet or so should yield a few pounds of seed, enough for a winter’s worth of cooking. While amaranth will tolerate almost any soil, yields increase with additions of compost or well-rotted manure. Plant one or two seeds per inch, one-fourth to one-half inch deep, in rows 12 to 16 inches apart. Row spacing can vary depending on the system and equipment you use. Keep the seedbed moist, but not soaked, through germination. A thin mulch will help retain moisture while allowing the plants to emerge. If you apply a thicker mulch once the stand is established, you shouldn’t need to water at all unless you experience severe drought conditions. For earlier or larger harvests, you can sow indoors four to six weeks before transplanting into the garden. Keep moist until the plants are established
Thin young plants for salad greens and thin larger plants for cooking. You should end up with about one plant per square foot for a grain crop. Even if you don’t thin them at all, the plants seem to take care of it by themselves. Weed control is important for the first few weeks as amaranth is a slow starter, but once it gets going, it will out-compete most weeds
By midsummer, your plants should be anywhere from 2 to 4 feet tall, depending on the variety. As the seed heads form, the plants will develop a stunning display that will last until frost. You can thin again at this point, cutting the colorful, smaller heads or side shoots to add to bouquets.
Gather Your Grain
Here in Maine, I generally wait until after the first frost when most of the seed is mature and the plants begin to die back. I then cut the heads and lay them on a tarp or sheet to dry, which sometimes involves bringing them inside before it rains. You also can hang them upside down over a tarp. Either way, seeds will continue to mature until dry. Some folks like to strip all the heads from the stems and thresh the seeds before the crop dries to avoid dealing with the bulkiness and prickly nature of dried plants. If done this way, the crop will require less space for drying. This also eliminates the first step of threshing the seed — crushing and removing the larger dried plant material.
Cleaning the Seeds
I thoroughly enjoy eating amaranth greens and watching the crop grow in the garden throughout the summer, but separating seed from chaff is my favorite part of growing grain amaranth. A blend of art and science, seed cleaning can be practiced for a lifetime with steady improvement, yet never fully mastered. To me, the primal rhythms of hand threshing and winnowing evoke a connection to ancient Aztec farmers and to indigenous farmers everywhere.
You can clean the seeds in many ways. If you’ve gone the route of drying the whole flower tops, the first job is to reduce the bulk to a manageable size while dislodging the seeds. (If you’ve gone a different route, begin where it seems appropriate for the material that you’ve collected.)
Start by dancing. Crush the brittle plants by treading on them with clean shoes in a large tub, between tarps or in a pillowcase or sack. Once all the plants are crushed, rub them through a one-fourth-inch screen to remove the large debris and further break down the chaff. (Use gloves!) You also can swirl seeds and chaff in a large, shallow basket or bowl. The seeds will sink, and rough chaff can be skimmed off. Once you’ve removed most of the larger chaff, try sifting through a smaller screen (common window screen will work) or try winnowing with the wind
You can winnow on a breezy day, but it is somewhat easier and more consistent to use a box fan. The basic idea is to drop the seed/chaff mixture slowly before the wind (real or fan-made). The seeds will fall faster than the chaff, allowing you to catch them while the chaff blows away.
Three square tubs, sitting side by side, are useful for catching the seeds as they fall. The closest tub will catch the cleanest seeds and so forth. You may need to adjust the fan speed and distance away from the tubs, and repeat the process a few times to get pure seed in the first tub.
Once you achieve a batch of clean seed, you can then move on to clean the seed-rich mixture from the other two tubs until you reach a point of diminishing returns.
Another method, which can be good for quickly making small batches, is to pour the mixture between two shallow bowls in the breeze, adjusting them so the bottom bowl catches the seeds while the chaff blows away. A final cleaning can be done by repeatedly swirling the seeds in a bowl, allowing the chaff to rise to the top, then gently blowing it off. Again, work over a large tarp in case too much seed gets away from you. There are dozens of other ways to extract the seeds, so experiment! With careful observation and a little perseverance, you’ll be cleaning seeds like an Aztec farmer in no time.
The Fruits of Your Labor
Amaranth grain can be used in countless ways: Mix it with hot breakfast cereal, add it to baked goods by replacing one-fourth of the wheat flour with amaranth flour, or even add a handful of whole seeds to enhance leavened bread recipes. It also is good in soups where it will turn from a chewy grain to a thickening agent as it cooks down. Others report using it in crackers, granola, breading for tofu, pie crusts, toppings for casseroles or confections with molasses or honey.
But if you want to experience the essence of the grain, try simply toasting it in a saucepan on medium heat, dry or with a little oil, then add an equal volume of water and a pinch of salt, cover and cook on low heat until the water is absorbed (about 15 minutes). If it still seems a little tough, add a touch more water and continue to cook until tender. Now sit back and enjoy this nutty, nutritious whole grain.