Amazing Amaranth

Grow this dual-purpose global 'superplant' for nutritious greens and high-protein whole grain.

| April/May 2005


Amaranth makes a productive grain crop and the striking plants are often used asornamentals, such as this 'Burgundy' amaranth.

photo courtesy SCOTT VLAUN

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.

After a surge of interest in the 1980s when amaranth was popularized by the work of Robert Rodale and the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, Pa., commercial production in the United States has leveled off at about 3,000 acres planted annually, according to Brenner.

“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.

6/10/2016 11:50:56 PM

I'm growing amaranth as a trellis to pole beans. The largest plant finally reached 10 inches, and I planted bean seeds next to it. A few days later I noticed the amaranth has flowers starting. If I cut off the flowers, can I get it to continue growing? Will the flower stalks be sturdy enough to use as a trellis? Or should I just figure on skipping the beans this year?

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