Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Amazing Amaranths

I've been recently working on a presentation for a symposium up at Olbrich Botanical Gardens (Madison, WI) on February 19th. The symposium is on Incredible, Edible Gardens and my topic is "Ornamental Edibles". The image to the left shows zinnias and 'Golden Giant' amaranth (Amaranthus) that is an edible plant for it's young leaves and grain production. It's been interesting compiling images of ornamental plants that you can eat and I've been more and more impressed with amaranth as a great garden plant and "edible opportunity." 'Golden Giant' will get over 7' tall and has impressive flower plumes. Other amaranths include the "summer poinsettias" or Joseph Coat leaf amaranths (Amaranthus tricolor) that have edible leaves and beautiful leaf coloration. There are many varieties including 'Early Splendor' to the right. Amaranths love our WI summers although it's important to note that pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) is in this group as well! See the article below for more information on this neat group of annuals and incorporate some in to your sunny garden this year! Note the 'Fat Spike' amaranth at the bottom!

Another really cold day. Janice, Larry and I have been inside working on various projects. Jean is working in our reference libary and we've had various volunteers come and go throughout the day.

Are you interested in a plant with an ornamental impact that is also good for your diet? Amaranths (Amaranthus sp.), while not new to horticulture, have found there way into both ornamental and vegetable gardens throughout the world. The popularity of these plants in the United States has soared in recent years and with the sheer variety of amaranths available, you may find one that suits both your eye and your stomach. Thriving in hot summers and being easy to grow from seed are two more wonderful attributes of these garden stalwarts.

There are over 60 species of amaranth, many of which are considered weedy (including the notorious pigweed). However, many species are very ornamental and less invasive. Gardeners may be familiar with love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus). This old-fashioned garden annual with its great height and trailing pink or green flower clusters is always an eye-catcher. With over 400 varieties, amaranth has a wide range of value as both a food crop and ornamental plant.

Amaranths have been an important part of civilization for over 8,000 years. Amaranth was eaten by hunter-gatherers in both North and South America before the domestication of agriculture. Grown as both a grain plant and a leaf vegetable, amaranths were utilized by the Mayans and were the principle grain crop of the Aztecs between 5,000 and 7,000 years ago. Frequently called “Grain of the Aztecs”, these plants were domesticated along with maize, beans and gourds. Grain amaranth was frequently interplanted amongst other crops and harvested at the end of the growing season. Ancient Peruvian cultures planted a border of amaranth around fields to protect the principle crop against wind, animals and thieves.

The principle grain species include hypochondriacus, cruentus and caudatus. Sown in late May and harvested after frost, over 1000 lbs. of grain can be collected per acre from these amaranths. The primary leaf species include tricolor, dubius, lividus, and cruentus. Depending on the culture, young leaves can be cooked, steamed, blanched, stir-fried or baked. Asian cuisine utilizes many of the highly nutritious leaf amaranths (Amaranthus tricolor).

Amaranth grain is very high in fiber and low in saturated fats. The grain has more protein than corn and when ground, is utilized in breads, noodles, pancakes, cereals, granola, cookies, and other flour-based products. The grain can be popped like popcorn or flaked like oatmeal. Popped seeds are eaten in Mexico and Peru where they are mixed with molasses for a snack. In Peru, the seeds are also fermented to make beer and in India, to make candy. Amaranths were also planted on primitive kitchen compost piles and utilized in the diet for both leaf and seed.

The youngest leaves of amaranth are the most edible although some species are better tasting than others. In fact, young leaves can be harvested off of grain amaranths and the seed collected later in the year. Amaranthus tricolor has been used in China for over 400 years. Also called ‘Chinese spinach”, the leaves are thought to have a better taste than spinach, are high in protein and have significant levels of vitamins C and A, potassium, iron, magnesium and calcium. In Mexico and Peru, amaranth leaves are boiled and fried. Dye from the red amaranth leaves has many historical and present day uses.

No comments: