Deriving its name from the Greek word amarantos, “one that does not wither” and native to South America and Mesoamerica is the pseudocereal known as Amaranth. A common name that encapsulates more than 74 species, with approximately 55 native species to the Americas, and the remaining 19 native species to Eurasia, South Africa, and Australia/Oceania. Amaranth is able to grow in a large variety of climates: warm temperate, subtropical, and tropical regions around the world. “New World” amaranth was brought to Europe via the Columbian Exchange. Though underappreciated by many who live in the Western hemisphere, it has been popular in India, Nepal, China, and Russia and grown as a high quality, gluten-free grain, with the greens used as a leafy vegetable. What differentiates Amaranth from other grains are its nutritional benefits like being high in protein, cholesterol-lowering, and anti-inflammatory properties, high in vitamins A and C.
Amaranth is typically tall and has broad green leaves with bright purple, red, or gold flowers. The plant is large and bushy and can reach over 6 feet in height. The seeds are small; each one is about 3-4 millimeters in diameter and the roots of the crop are generally sparse. Although amaranth is highly adaptable to their environment, it is frost-sensitive and requires warm weather. It is drought tolerant and can grow in a wide variety of soils but prefer good drainage. The leafy vegetable varieties of amaranth measure around 1-4 feet tall and are bushier than those varieties that are primarily for producing grain. Weekly harvesting tends to delay flowering and encourages new shoot and leaf growth.
The leafy vegetable varieties of amaranth are highly nutritious, with African varieties notably providing up to 25 percent of one’s daily protein. Boiled amaranth leaves and stems are soft in texture and have a mild flavor with little to no bitterness. The U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland conducted taste tests for 60 participants and found that, of the 60 participants, a large majority said cooked amaranth tasted at least as good as spinach. Some even saying that the taste was similar to that of artichoke.
Part of a long and colorful history throughout the “New World” and used for its greens and grains, Amaranth was consumed by the American Indian populations in the American Southwest and Great Basin. These populations included the Navajo, Tewa, Zuni, Havasupai, Yuman, Apache, and other Pueblo Indians, who used the greens and seeds of the amaranths extensively, even cultivating several types. It is recorded that the native tribes as far north as Montana ate the leaves and seeds of the wild prostrate Amaranth. A traditional Zuni myth states that the rain priests scattered the seeds of the prostrate Amaranth across the earth; this symbolizes the cultural importance this plant once held by the native “New World” populations.
In Mesoamerica, the Aztecs also cultivated Amaranth as one of their major crops. Known to the Aztecs as huauhtli in Nahuatl (Aztec language) and bledo in Spanish, it was used to make idols of dough, called zoale, meant to represent the god of war, sun, and human sacrifice, Huitzilopochtli. These idols were featured during festivals, which took place throughout the year. Zoale was a dough made of milled Amaranth and toasted corn seeds mixed with honey or maguey sap. During the festival of Huitzilopochtli, which took place sometime in May, these idols were broken up, distributed, and eaten in a communion ceremony. Use of zoale and Amaranth was featured in at least six other seasonal festivals honoring various deities within the Aztec religion. They also used amaranth flour to make tortillas and tamales and used the greens for vegetables. However, use of the plant quickly declined during the Colonial Period due to the Spanish Christian missionaries attempting to convert the Aztecs. Because the plant was associated with pagan festivals, it was banned by the Colonizers. The importance of Amaranth in the Aztec civilization is shown when the Spanish conquistador banned the cultivation and possession of the crop. Using brutal, violent tactics, he actively sought to suppress Aztec culture, traditions, and religion. However, Amaranth is still enjoyed by some in Mexico, who continue to create a popped amaranth confection called dulce alegria which is similar to zoale.
The suppression of Amaranth saw the crop fade into obscurity with little industrial-scale statistical data. However, this crop has the potential to replace maize, wheat, and other grains because of its’ ability to grow in dry, drought-ridden areas. Though commonly referred to as pigweed and misunderstood as a weed in the U.S., amaranth is a popular crop in developing nations. An easy-to-grow, nutrient-rich, high yielding food, amaranth can boost the nutrition and food security problems that affect many underserved communities, especially as climate change continues to affect climates around the world.
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Davison, Jay, and Beth Leger. “The Potential of Amaranth as a New Crop for Nevada.” https://www.unce.unr.edu/publications/files/ag/2012/fs1219.pdf.
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