The Amazing Amaranths: Food and Flowers from Weeds
The lowly pigweed is actually a valuable ornamental and edible plant. In fact, the popular grain quinoa is a member of the Amaranthaceae family. Amaranth has been cultivated for hundreds of years as a leaf vegetable, a pseudocereal grain plant, and as an ornamental.
Nutritional Value of Amaranth
Amaranth leaves, stems, and seeds contain 15 to 24 percent protein. The grain is high in lysine, an amino acid missing in other grains. It is a good source of calcium, magnesium, iron, phosphorus, and potassium. Some studies show that it has the potential to decrease cholesterol due in part to its high fiber content.
Amaranth seed can be cooked as a cereal, popped like popcorn, or ground into flour. The main commercial seed amaranths are
- Amaranthus hypochondriacus, with large, red seed heads
- Amaranthus cruentus, which is less frequently grown commercially but popular as an ornamental known as "Prince's Plume."
Amaranth seed species have been hybridized to produce more productive and ornamental varieties, with names such as "Dreadlocks," "Elephant Head," and "Juana's Orange."
In the island nations such as Jamaica and Haiti, people grow a leaf amaranth known as calaloo. It is used as a pot herb and to make a soup by the same name. All amaranth leaves are edible, but the less attractive weedy types seem to have a better taste. Aside from the calaloo amaranth, other varieties that are grown as leaf vegetables include
- Palmer's amaranth—the common pigweed found growing in fields and on roadsides
- Red-leaf amaranth—has green leaves with red coloration in the center
- Garnet amaranth—a slow-growing variety grown mainly as a micro-green
Many amaranths have been hybridized to produce bright, colorful leaves or large, showy flower spikes. Some varieties are also known as "summer poinsettias," because of their resemblance to those flowers. The leaves and seeds of these varieties are still edible but may not be as tasty as those grown for seed or leaves alone. A few of the better known garden varieties include
- Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus)—a popular garden variety with large clumps of dark red cascading seed heads. The plant also comes in a green variety.
- Joseph's coat (Amaranthus tricolor)—an heirloom and the first summer poinsettia variety, this plant has tri-colored leaves in shades of red, green, and yellow. Hybrids of this species have been developed with names such as "Molten Fire" and "Early Splendor"
- "Golden Giant"—a seed amaranth grown ornamentally for its large, showy golden seed heads
- Globe amaranth—a low-growing variety with small, globe-shaped flowers that is often grown as a border plant
Amaranth is truly a valuable plant with food and ornamental uses. Talk to your landscape professional such as All Season Landscaping about how you can add amaranth to your edible and ornamental landscape.