The Global Garden: Amaranth, a crimson tide of seeds


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Like quinoa, amaranth is one of the “lost crops” of the Americas. Before the arrival of the Conquistadors, the tall annual with the large crimson seed heads was a staple for the Aztecs, the Incas, the Hopi. Because of its association with indigenous rituals, however, the Spanish prohibited any domestic cultivation of the crop.

In some local community gardens, a similar injunction is in force but for different reasons. Some wild species are called pigweed and are considered to be invasive; the seeds scatter easily and require little attention (or water) to grow.


However, some gardeners consider this weed to be a good companion plant with corn, potatoes and onion. Birds come for the seeds, and beneficial ground beetles nest at the foot of the plant, feeding on pests, including slugs. Amaranth also is known to break up compacted soil and trap leaf miners, insects that can damage crop foliage.

At Proyecto Jardin, a community garden in Boyle Heights, green and magenta varieties are growing. The plant has cultural significance, said Irene Pena, the garden’s administrator.

“It’s a traditional crop, special,’ she said. ‘The seeds are sacred. It’s considered revolutionary to grow it. Leaves are harvested and used in moles and soups.”

The stems are edible, too, high in fiber. Amaranth commonly is grown in a pot, particularly in the West Indies. The protein-rich tiny seeds -- white or black, depending on species -- can be toasted, boiled or ground, leading to its designation by some as a pseudo-cereal that’s similar to wheat but without the gluten. A large seed head can weigh more than two pounds and have hundreds of thousands of seeds. Janice Kubo, a gardener in West Covina, grows a variety of amaranth called Elephant Head in her backyard. She planted it partially for the beautiful dark red flower heads, loaded with seeds.

“It makes a cluster of flowers, and each flower makes a seed,” she said. “We got it because it’s pretty and edible. We eat the leaves -- the younger ones. I harvested the seeds once but it’s a lot of work.’

Kubo said her household doesn’t eaten gluten, so she buys white amaranth seeds at the store to eat. Harvesting the seeds is indeed a chore. After shaking off the dried seeds into a bowl, the chaff has to be removed. This is done most easily by blowing softly over the surface, leaving the glossy black seeds behind.

-- Jeff Spurrier

The Global Garden, a look at our multicultural city through the lens of its landscapes, usually appears Tuesdays. For an easy way to follow future installments, join our Facebook page for gardening in the West.

Blow away the chaff, and you’re left with ...

...amaranth seeds.

Amaranth seeds scatter easily and grow without much water, helping to explain why the plant often is considered a weed.


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Photo credits: Ann Summa