Amaranth is a source of beauty, color & food in my low desert summer garden. I love seeing the brightly-colored seed heads shine in the late afternoon sun. The birds and other pollinators are drawn to it as well. Amaranth does more than double duty in my garden as it also yields edible leaves and grain, and its stems are magnificent in cut flower arrangements. Learn how to grow amaranth, and consider adding it to your spring and monsoon planting list.
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Amaranth History & Information
There is a long history of Amaranth being grown in Arizona and surrounding areas. Among others, the Aztecs considered amaranth a significant crop, receiving tribute payments from neighboring provinces and believing it to be the “food of Gods.” Indigenous people in the Southwest and Northern Mexico still gather wild amaranth greens, symbolizing the monsoon rains. For seeds and to learn more about the history of amaranth, visit NaitveSeeds.Org.
Amaranthus is often monoecious, which means it has individual flowers that are either male or female, but both can be found on the same plant. The plant is pollinated by the wind. Amaranth is an annual or short-lived perennial. In some areas, amaranth is often considered a weed, and care should be taken to remove the seed head if you do not wish amaranth to reseed in your garden.
Amaranth Varieties to Try
There are different types of amaranth, with some being more suitable for consumption while others are often ornamental.
Hopi Red Dye – very red leaves and flowers. It was originally grown as a dye plant by the Southwestern Hopi Nation.
Mountain Pima Greens – from the Sonora/Chihuahua border in Mexico. The leaves are used for greens, and the light-colored seeds are ground for pinole.
Chinese Giant Orange – excellent edible type with large seed heads that can grow up to 8 feet tall.
Love-Lies-Bleeding – ornamental variety features long, drooping red flowers hanging like ropes.
Where and When to Plant Amaranth
Amaranth thrives in warm temperatures and full sun (at least 6 hours) but benefits from afternoon shade in hot summer climate areas. It grows best in nutrient-rich soil with good drainage. Amend soil with compost before planting.
Plant amaranth seeds directly in the garden once the soil has warmed up in the spring. Barely cover seeds with 1/4” (6mm) of soil. Thin plants to 12-18” (30-45cm) apart, depending on the variety.
Alternatively, you can start the seeds indoors about 6 to 8 weeks before the last frost date, then transplant seedlings outdoors once the soil has warmed up.
Read this blog post for more information about monsoon gardening in Arizona, including which other plants do well planted during the monsoon.
How to Grow Amaranth and Care for It as It Grows
Learning how to grow amaranth is fairly simple. Here’s what to do once it begins growing:
- Water amaranth regularly. As plants mature, water deeply, less often, to encourage strong roots. This is the watering system I use and recommend.
- Mulch plants to conserve moisture.
- Cut back amaranth above two sets of leaves to encourage branching if desired when plants are about 8-10” (20-25cm) tall.
- Stake plants if necessary. I use bamboo poles.
Amaranth Harvesting Tips
Begin harvesting leaves as soon as they’re big enough to eat. Cut the leaves at the base of the stem, leaving the plant intact. Small tender leaves are best for fresh eating; larger leaves are best cooked.
If you’re growing amaranth for its grains, harvest the seed head before it dries and drops the seeds. (Fallen seeds may mean you’ll have amaranth volunteers popping up for years to come.) Place the seed head in a paper sack. Once dry, shake the seed heads to remove the seeds, winnow them to remove any chaff, and store them in a dry, cool place for future use.
Harvest amaranth for cut flowers when the seed heads are large, and the color intensifies. Strip bottom leaves to prevent wilting. The stems last 7-10 days in a vase with a floral preservative.
Uses for Amaranth
- Amaranth leaves are rich in vitamins and minerals. Eat fresh or cook like spinach.
- The grain is gluten-free and a “complete protein” (contains all of the essential amino acids), making it an excellent substitute for wheat. Use the grain to make porridge, bread, or even popcorn.
- Amaranth adds a vibrant pop of color and texture to cut flower arrangements.