Amaranth

Ancient grains in an Alaska garden

Usually I’m pretty good at remembering how I met a fascinating new plant.

For amaranth, however, my memory is hazy. My best guess is I first laid eyes on a Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus), dripping from a friend’s front porch flower box.

Initially, my gaze focused on the plant’s long, magenta locks (other varieties come in lime green or even coral seed heads). Similar to my experience with runner beans, it took a few years of growing amaranth to appreciate its edible qualities.

My current favorite for floral arrangements is Red Spike Amaranth (A. cruentus).

Widely cultivated in ancient Mesoamerica and other regions for food and religious practices, gluten-free amaranth is by no means a cold climate plant. But even though A. caudatus (pictured above) and A. cruentus (to the right) look like divas, they don’t act that way. Amaranth germinates and reseeds like a champ, and needs limited attention during the growing season.

I’ve cultivated Love Lies Bleeding from saved seed for many years. In 2016, I grew out nearly every seedling that germinated – quite a lot – and peddled them to all of my gardening friends. That summer I created at least three new amaranth fans in metropolitan Anchorage.

Gluten-free popped amaranth takes a few messy seconds to make on the stove. Make sure to strain out the un-popped seed.

This week I popped a half pint jar of seeds I saved a few years ago. (You need to boil or “pop” amaranth seeds to digest them.) I hope to use my remaining popped seeds to make a small batch of traditional Mexican snack bars

Growing and harvesting amaranth is a simple way to learn rudimentary skills in threshing and winnowing. Amaranth likely isn’t a viable commercial crop here but growing it at home might be fun for families who want to try harvesting small batches of their own grain.

The amaranth genus includes some invasive plants that plague farmers, including pigweed, which has arrived in Alaska. I admit to a certain fondness for the plant, due solely to ‘Old Pigweed’, a favorite Mark Knopfler tune.

Growing and Harvesting Tips: For big, happy plants, provide fertile soil, sunlight, and lots of space. You can plant amaranth in containers and move them under the eaves of your house if you experience rainy falls that diminish seed production.

In the fall, snip the long flowering stalks when they are completely dry. Store them carefully and whenever convenient for you, thresh and winnow them. If the chaff blows in your face, wash it off carefully. Speaking from experience, rubbing chaff off your face is rather painful!

In my garden, amaranth grows much better than another ancient grain, quinoa, which develops seed over a longer season. I’ve also found it easier to harvest the seed from amaranth, perhaps because my quinoa seed never matured properly. All of the amaranth varieties I’ve tried produce edible salad greens and large quantities of seed. Plus they make amazing floral arrangements.

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