Cooking from the Garden: Amaranthus

  • Difficulty Rating: Beginner
Amaranthus

Leafy greens are all the rage in edible gardening. Lettuce, kale, chard, spinach and others are simple to grow, easy on the eye, and each is highly nutritious. Looking for other, lesser-known greens? One that’s bound to catch your eye and tame your grumbling tummy is Amaranthus.

Amaranthus (also known as Amaranth) is a stunning plant grown for a number of purposes. Showy varieties like ‘Love Lies Bleeding’, ‘Plume Plant’ and ‘Cockscomb’ are cultivated to add fuzzy textures, unique forms and outrageous colors to the annual garden – rather than food for our tables. Although the edible members of this genus may not always have show-off flowers, they still offer more than just something green for your table.

 

Garden with leafy greens

 

In many cultures, Amaranth is grown for its densely nutritious seed.  If you have the room to grow a large crop of edible seed Amaranth, look forward to protein-rich kernels that cook up like a tiny quinoa. To harvest seed, allow the entire plant to mature and flower. Toward the end of summer, flowers should contain dried seed. Pull the entire plant and hang upside-down with a clean sheet underneath in a cool, dry place. As the plant continues to dry, seeds may drop onto the sheet below. Once the entire plant has dried, gently shake out remaining seeds onto your sheet. Clean out any detritus and then store harvested seed in a dry, sealed container.

If growing your own grain isn’t for you or if you only have room for a couple of plants, keep in mind that tiny songbirds will feast on late season seed formed on both edible and ornamental Amaranth flowers. Don’t let that food go to waste!

 

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For smaller gardens, varieties like Amaranthus tricolor are fantastic to add seasonal color and foliage to your beds and a tasty leafy green to your picnics. These green and burgundy leafy greens are slightly bitter and fantastically abundant. Plus, they are packed with iron. To harvest leaves, either begin pinching the tips to just above a leaf bud after the plant is several inches tall, or allow the entire plant to mature before harvesting leaves. Try serving these gorgeous greens steamed like spinach, torn into a salad or wrapped around a slice of fresh melon with prosciutto.  Just be sure to cut out any stiff or stringy leaf veins before eating them raw or you may be chewing for a while!

All Amaranth are heat-lovers, which means you will be harvesting them long after cool season spinaches and lettuces have wilted away for summer. Seed Amaranth once temperatures have warmed for spring or risk watching young seedlings crash on a cold day. Too, Amaranthus can weedy, so check noxious weed lists before planting any. If you do grow it, know Amaranth may self-seed year after year – especially if those songbirds are feasting on last season’s seed in autumn. Keep an eye out for their distinctive pink-red stems and multi-colored leaves popping up in spring. If they appear in odd places, pop them up to replant in a more desirable location. Taller, upright varieties work well in the back of a bed while a mid-height option like ‘Love Lies Bleeding’ is great in the middle of a bed to drape over evergreen shrubs for a pop of color.