Amaranth is a common wild plant found everywhere in our territory. By many, it’s considered a weed in gardens due to its tendency to grow among cultivated plants during the spring and summer seasons. However, not everyone knows that it’s an edible plant used in human nutrition and appreciated for its delicate flavor. It originates from South America but has now spread worldwide. In its countries of origin, certain species are cultivated for their seeds, from which flour is derived. This flour is beginning to replace those produced from traditional grains that deplete the soil.
Let’s get to know the common amaranth better and learn to appreciate it, not just as a problem for our home cultivation.
Botanical Background of Amaranth
Common amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus) is a wild plant belonging to the family Amaranthaceae. The name comes from the Greek amarantos = that does not wither, referring to the ability of the inflorescences to remain intact even after drying. Many species have red flowers, which has led the word to acquire a chromatic meaning. Retroflexus means bent backward, referring to the typical attitude of the central spike of the amaranth. The plant is of South American origin and was accidentally introduced to Europe during the early voyages from the New World. For the peoples of the Aztec and Maya civilizations, among the edible plants, these were some of the most important. The entire plant is edible. Leaves, seeds, and roots have been used in nutrition since ancient times.
Botanical Characteristics of the Amaranth Plant
Stem and Root System
Amaranth is an annual herbaceous plant of the monoecious type. It has an erect stem, woody at the base, with a light green color, becoming reddish at the base. It reaches an average height of 80-100 cm, but under ideal conditions, it can grow up to 2 m. Numerous branches emerge from the stem, starting from the base, giving the plant a bushy form. The root system is fibrous and reaches a good depth in the soil. The entire plant has an efficient photosynthetic system that optimally absorbs all the elements from the soil. For this reason, however, within a vegetable garden, it competes with cultivated plants, depriving them of nutrients. Consequently, it’s considered a weed species.
Amaranth leaves are long and have petioles, with a complete, ovate-rhomboidal blade and a pointed tip. The leaf margin is slightly undulated, with clear veins. The normal color of the leaves is pale green; in some areas, the leaves are darker and have whitish streaks.
Flowers and Seeds
In the amaranth plant, the very small flowers appear in spike-shaped inflorescences on lateral branches and in a large terminal panicle at the apex of the stem. The inflorescence is bent backward, and if the plant is well developed, the central one can even be 15 cm long. Being a monoecious plant, both female and male flowers are found on the same plant. Each spike produces many seeds, characterized by their ability to remain viable in the soil for many years. Amaranth seeds are dark brown or reddish, lentil-shaped, with a rough and shiny surface. Amaranth reproduces only by seed, and a single plant can produce up to a million seeds, although the average is around two hundred thousand. Germination is stimulated by light and humidity, so the seed needs to be on the surface. The period of emergence is in the spring, around the beginning of June. Besides cultivated fields, amaranth grows in meadows and along pathways, from lowlands to high hills. The plants thrive throughout the autumn season. A piece of advice for harvesting is to avoid polluted areas or places where pesticides have been used for agriculture. This observation holds true for many edible wild plants, such as purslane, borage, plantain, oregano, dandelion, wild chicory and others.
Properties and Uses of Amaranth
In ancient times, amaranth was used as a medicinal plant due to its high content of vitamins A and C, minerals, calcium, and iron. Thanks to these elements, it has astringent and revitalizing properties, making it useful for conditions like intestinal bleeding or heavy menstrual flow. However, it’s in the culinary world where amaranth finds its main uses. Its leaves have a very delicate flavor, similar to that of spinach. The best ones to cook are the young ones, found in a rosette state.
Even the young stem, before the flowers appear, is edible and used like asparagus. The dried and ground seeds yield amaranth flour, which is ideal for people with celiac disease or those who want to avoid gluten. This flour is indeed gluten-free and quite flavorful (great for cakes, bread, cookies, and other homemade products). You can purchase it here. It’s advisable to use the leaves after boiling, similar to how spinach is prepared. Amaranth is a plant capable of synthesizing nitrates quite well, especially in cultivated and nitrogen-rich soils. It’s also rich in oxalates. After cooking, the nitrates are expelled and remain in the water, which therefore cannot be used. Usually, amaranth is used in simple salads, dressed with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon. It’s also frequently used in soups and stews.