Grow up a little amaranth By Molly Day Muskogee Garden Club
Amaranth is an ancient tropical plant that was originally grown in India, Mexico and South America.
There are 60 species that grow tall and erect, spreading, or prostrate on the ground.
Many of the species have colorful leaves and numerous, densely packed flowers over the summer and fall.
Some of the common names for plants in this family are: Chenille plant, Kiss Me Over the Garden Gate, Pig Weed, Goose Foot, Sow Bane, Chinese Spinach, Cock’s Comb, Gizzard Plant, and Lamb’s Quarters.
The leaves taste like spinach, are rich in Vitamins A and C, calcium and iron. They are used to brighten salads and used in stir-fry and soup.
Amaranth seeds contain 18 percent protein, vitamin E, linoleic acid, lysine, amino acids, three times the fiber and five times the iron of wheat. Cooked amaranth seed is ninety percent digestible.
Amaranth predated corn as an agricultural crop and has a rich tradition as a prized plant.
Montezuma demanded 200,000 bushels of seed a year as payment of taxes from Aztec citizens. In Peru, it was a food staple called Inca Wheat.
Similarly valued in Africa, Asia and Europe the plant was sent to America by Thomas Jefferson in 1786 during his European botanical tour with John Adams. Jefferson sent Joseph’s Coat Amaranth to Virginia to be grown for its colorful, edible leaves.
In Mexico, Amaranth seeds are popped and mixed with sugar to make alegria and roasted Amaranth seeds are used to make atole.
In the United States, the grain is sold mostly in health food stores as vegetarian protein, a substitute for popping corn, a cooked cereal and to be sprouted for salads.
Some ornamental varieties are grown to feed birds, including Burgundy Amaranth with blood red flower, Warihio, with vibrant red leaves, Golden Giant with green leaves and yellow seed heads, and Viridis with vivid green flower tassels.
Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranth caudatus) has deep red, drooping spikes of flowers that have been used by gardeners and flower arrangers since Victorian times.
The variety Fat Spikes grows only 2 feet tall. Aurora has cream color upper leaves on a 2-foot tall plant and Illumination is burgundy, orange and pink.
Consistently one of the most popular garden varieties, Joseph’s Coat, has edible gold and crimson leaves with green.
Wayne Winterrowd said in his book, “Annuals for Connoisseurs,” “In the right place, Amaranth caudatus can be a stunning accent, both dignified and slightly giddy, looking like nothing else in the summer garden.”
Amaranth is fairly easy to grow from seed. Start seeds in the house in April in sterile, sandy soil or plant them directly outside around the first of May. Give tall varieties plenty of room in full sun and average soil with good drainage to prevent mold.
Winterrowd suggested that to make the beds look good, plant a few seeds a week for three or four weeks, always planting the new seed in a row in front of the emerging plants. Then, as the flowers fade in the back, fresh plants will be blooming in the front.
• For seeds of Asian vegetable types such as Asia Red, Bayam, Red Strip Leaf and others, try www.evergreenseeds.com.
• Botanical Interests (www.botanicalinterests.com) has Red Leaf Amaranth, which they call Tricolor or Een Choy Hiyu. Another company calls their edible Amaranth Yin Tsai or Chinese Spinach.
• Parks Seeds (www.parkseed.com) offers a three-color Celosia Bombay Collection. Johnny’s Selected Seeds (www.johnnyseeds.com) has Celosia argentea cristata Chief Mix, which is a combination of cutting flowers in six colors.
• Celosia argentea, Lagos spinach or Quail Grass, is a very popular, easy to grow ornamental plant. Early in the season the leaves are red, yellow and green. In the fall the leaves turn dark red and the 4-inch flower. They love sunny, dry spots. Start seeds indoors in late-March or April.
• Globe Amaranth, Gomphrena globosa, is a tough garden plant that flowers in purple, white, pink or yellow. Look for seeds of Gomphrena Strawberry Fields, Bicolor Rose and All Around Purple. Many gardeners grow them for their 1.5-inch everlasting flowers. Plant in full sun, 6 to 8-inches apart, to help prevent mildew and mold on the leaves.
• Territorial Seed (www.territorialseed.com) has seeds for Love-Lies Bleeding, Pony Tails and Autumn Touch.
• Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) sells eight, edible varieties including Greek Amaranth, the leaves of which are used in Greek cooking. (It’s 500 garden seeds in a packet for under $3.) Their catalog description: Delicious leaves, multi-headed flower plumes, dark purple edible seeds.
• Celosia cristata or Celosia argentea var. cristata is commonly known as Cockscomb and Crista-de-galo.
• Celosia argentea Kimono grows to 8-inches and Century grows to 2-feet tall. Apricot Brandy has pale orange flowers and green-purple leaves, Forest Fire has scarlet flowers and maroon leaves. These varieties are available from Thompson & Morgan (www.tmseeds.com).
• Kitchen Garden Seed (www.kitchengardenseed.com) offers Prince of Wales Feathers, or Century Plume Celosia with plumes in cream, orange, rose, scarlet, yellow and vibrant red — 400 seeds under $3.