Amazing Amaranth

AmaranthI’ll admit it right up front. I’ve never grown amaranth. But I’m going to consider it for next year (and no, it’s not too early to start planning next year’s garden). Why? We’ve always been interested in growing grains as part of a desire for self-sufficiency. And then we’ve been learning about what a nutritional powerhouse amaranth is. The biggest reason? We saw amaranth growing in a nearby garden. It’s beautiful red seed heads were one of the most striking things in the entire garden.

Amaranth is a favorite grain for those on gluten-free diets. It’s protein is near complete and easily digestible. It contains high amounts of lysine, the one amino acid that most flour substitutes are deficient in. You can buy amaranth flour in some health food stores. And you can buy the grain ready for cooking in many of them. But imagine growing the grain yourself. And then using it, usually in conjunction with other gluten-free flours.

Amaranth’s many other nutritious qualities are almost too numerous to list. The oils in amaranth may inhibit cholesterol. It has cancer-fighting, anti-inflammatory properties and has shown benefits for those with cardiovascular disease. Amaranth’s leaves are high in beta-carotene and lutein, substances that aid eye health. It’s also high in fiber and a great source for minerals, especially calcium, iron, and magnesium. Amaranth is also a good source of poly-unsaturated fats and Vitamin E.

Amaranth is easy to grow with only one discouraging factor. Amaranth is traditionally a tropical plant, grown in India, south Asia, and Mexico. It needs a long season, 90 to 120 days, a fact that discourages many northern gardeners. In this, it’s a lot like pumpkins, a crop many of us in the north raise successfully. Choosing faster maturing varieties, such as the Mexican Opopeo or Love-Lies-Bleeding Red (both 60 days) can help with this situation.

Most of the better grain producing varieties, like Mercado, are long season plants. But you can benefit from planting amaranth long ahead of seed harvesting. It makes a great greens crop and spinach substitute, with all the nutritional benefits of those crops… and more! If you’re growing amaranth for seed but harvesting the leaves for use in soups, stir-frys, and stews — or just to eat as greens — don’t harvest so many that the plant’s growth will be slowed. Bonus: gardeners in non-tropical regions find that the young leaves tend to be better suited for eating as greens than they do in warmer, more humid climates. We might be trying just a few plants next year for greens… and maybe one left to seed.

Amaranth needs lots of space. Some types will grow as high as five feet tall. Sow it very shallowly well after the last frost when soil temperatures have warmed (or use plastic cloches to give them a jump start). Keep them well watered to until the seedlings sprout. Amaranth is a drought-tolerant crop which makes it ideal for xeric gardens. Pests tend to avoid it with one exception. The striped cucumber beetle will go after the young plants. Smart gardeners use this to their advantage, planting amaranth near their cucumber patch to draw away the beetles.

Greens will be ready for picking within 40 days of planting and some gardeners will wish to grow them only for this purpose. But when their beautiful seed heads start climbing towards the sky, you’ll be glad you let them grow to maturity. Some types of amaranth, like the striking Tricolor Aurora Yellow, are grown only for their beauty. They’re especially wonderful used in the back of beds and other landscape settings. Choose carefully when growing amaranth and make sure the variety you pick is suited to your conditions and desires. Amaranth, a truly ancient plant, is a prime example of the benefits of heirloom vegetables. More types are being discovered and offered yearly. As old as this fine food crop is, we like to think of it as the grain of the future. It’s certainly in ours.

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