Growing Amaranth: A Seed Grain Related to Quinoa

Amaranth grain overviewProtein-Packed Seeds & Edible Leaves

There are around 60 species in the Amaranth family (‘Amaranthaceae’).  There is quite a bit of variation among amaranths. Some are weeds (e.g. pigweed). Some are used as ornamentals. And some are grown for food, using either the leaf, the seed, or both.

Amaranth seed is called a grain by many, but technically it isn’t a true grain. Amaranth tastes similar to other grains, and is used in much the same way, placing it in the category of a pseudograin or pseudocereal.

Quinoa is also in the Amaranthaceae family, and is also a pseudograin.

Even most of the grain amaranths are very ornamental with inflorescences (flowers) that are red, pink, purple, orange, or yellow.  In fact, they are said to produce some of the most beautiful agricultural fields in the world!

gorgeous red tassel amaranth with colored ornamental leaves

A. cruentus

There are three main types of Amaranths grown for the seed grain: A. hypochondriacus (huahtli), A. cruentus (Mexican grain amaranth), and A. caudatus (kiwicha or love-lies-bleeding).

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However, there are several other amaranths that are grown in other places of the world, that are used as food, both for the leaves and the seed. These include: A. dubius (leaves), A. palmeri (leaves & seeds), A. retroflexus (leaves & seeds), A. spinosus (leaves), A. thunbergii (leaves), A. tricolor (also known as callaloo – leaves), and A. viridis (leaves).

Most Common Grain Amaranths

A. hypochondriacus is, according to Plants for a Future database, “the most robust and highest yielding of the grain amaranths.” I have not grown this particular amaranth myself, though I’ve grown the other two seed grains (below), so I can’t vouch for whether or not is truly is the highest yielding of the three. It was originally grown by the Aztecs, who called it huahtli.  It is very common in South America.

A. cruentus is known as Mexican grain amaranth, and is the second most commonly grown grain amaranth, originally cultivated in Mexico.  It made its way to eastern Asia a long time ago and has been cultivated there for a long time, more for its leaves than its seed.  The leaves are popular as a vegetable and as an addition to salads. It appears that this is the variety that supplies the grain for Bob’s Red Mill amaranth grain and amaranth flour. They haven’t responded to my questions on the subject, yet, but the packaging says “the traditional grain of Mexico.” We’ll see what they say.

A. caudatus is the third most commonly grown grain amaranth.  It was originally cultivated in the valleys of the Andes.  It is also known as love-lies-bleeding, tassel flower, tassel amaranth, Inca wheat, and kiwicha. In the United States, both the pink tasseled and lime-green tasseled varieties are grown more for uses in bouquets and flower arrangements than for its seed grain. (Even Martha Stewart has featured it on her television show.)

amaranth flower tassels

Amaranthus caudatus tassels. They’re beautiful in any garden, and they provide protein-rich seeds.

Grain amaranths produces a protein-rich seed.  Each seed is only about 1/2 or 1/3 the size of a quinoa seed, but each plant can produce up to 100,000 seeds or more, and they are easy to harvest.

Seeds from wild varieties are black, and seeds from the cultivated varieties are lighter in color (I’ve seen white, light brown, and pinkish-red seeds).

Amaranth seems to be enjoying a slight rise in popularity… but not as quickly as its quinoa cousin.

You’ll occasionally see amaranth touted as a “superfood”.  The term “superfood” seems to me to be more of a clever word usage for marketing than anything else.  Just remember that even if it sounds exotic to you, it’s commonplace somewhere else.

Maybe somewhere in the world someone is looking at an apple for the first time and saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s a super amazing food!  It’s going to cure everybody of everything!”  (Okay I’m being a little sarcastic here… I’ll get off my soap box.  I think you get the point.)  On to some nutritional and cultivation details…

amaranthus caudatus flower tasselsAmaranth seed grain contains approximately 12-16% protein (a possible reason for its ‘superfood’ claim?), and are particularly high in lysine, methionine, and cysteine (which are essential amino acids).  Methionine and cysteine happen to be the only two amino acids that contain sulfur. Amaranth is lower in some of the amino acids found in our common grains, such as leucine and threonine, but because it contains a greater amount of lysine it is a great compliment for some of our common grains (such as wheat, which contains very little lysine) to form a “complete protein”.

Amaranth doesn’t contain any gluten, so it’s a good replacement for grains for people with a gluten sensitivity or gluten allergy.  However, when it’s used in bread-making, amaranth flour is never used alone.  It usually replaces only about 10-15% of the wheat flour (certainly no more than 25%).  Any more than about 15%, and the bread becomes quite dense, too moist, and less palatable.

Gluten is the protein in bread that forms the structure of the bread, so naturally, by replacing some of the wheat flour with a flour that doesn’t contain gluten, the bread won’t be able to rise and hold it’s shape and structure as well.  But even though amaranth flour doesn’t make good bread, you can make 100% amaranth flour biscuits, muffins, and other quick breads, and use it for certain types of pastries.

The seeds can also be eaten popped like popcorn, cooked into a porridge, or added to granola or muesli.  I’ve been told that the wild, black seeds have a stronger, more peppery taste which would not make it palatable as a porridge.  But from my experience, the lighter-colored seeds from more modern cultivars only have a very light, grain taste and are perfectly suitable as a porridge.

Amaranth grain cooks a little differently than quinoa. Instead of absorbing the water and becoming light and fluffy, starches in amaranth ‘cook out’, creating a porridge consistency.

One common question we get is:

Does amaranth contain saponins like quinoa?

Saponins are chemical compounds that become soapy and foamy when combined with water and are responsible for the soapy, bitter taste in quinoa.  That’s why quinoa has to be rinsed thoroughly… it helps remove most of the saponins.

Amaranth contains a very small amount of saponins – about 1/2 to 1/7 the amount of saponins found in quinoa, depending on the varieties being compared. The amount has been found to have no effect on consumer health.

As far as vitamins and minerals are concerned, the nutritional content of amaranth seed grain is basically on par with quinoa, and it actually contains slightly higher levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, niacin (a B vitamin), and vitamin B6.

The leaves of amaranth are also edible.  The older leaves are a bit large and somewhat thick and coarse, but the young leaves are smaller and more tender.  They can be steamed like spinach and eaten as a vegetable or added to salads.  They do not contain as much oxalate as spinach (which decreases the absorption of calcium), and they have a milder taste.

If you’re going to eat the leaves as a leaf vegetable, do not fertilize with chemical fertilizers, especially with nitrogen. Amaranths are able to take up more than usual amounts of nitrogen, to the point that the nitrogen in the leaves can accumulate to a toxic amount. For this same reason, amaranths grown in areas where chemical fertilizers are used should not be fed to livestock either. You shouldn’t have a problem if you just use compost and organic matter.

Most of the amaranths can grow quite tall. Amaranth can grow around 2-7 feet in height, depending on variety, growing and light conditions, and soil. Along with growing so tall, they can also branch out quite a bit.  From our personal experience, A. cruentus grows taller, and A. caudatus grows wider.

A. caudatus

A. caudatus

A. cruentus; variety: 'Red Garnet'

A. cruentus; cultivar: ‘Red Garnet’

If you do plant more than one amaranth be sure to leave at least 2-3 feet between plants.

Amaranths grow pretty well in both arid and humid climates and does best in a moderately fertile, well-draining soil.  It does not do well if overwatered, so make sure the soil is able to drain well to prevent root rot, and keep the watering consistent.

Amaranth is drought-tolerant, once it’s established, and is able to produce its seed-grain on a lower amount of water than our common grains, such as wheat or oats, which is an advantage for places that experience drought conditions in high summer. I would suggest mulching, as always, to protect plant roots and retain water.

Amaranth does best in full sun.  The flowers are generally described as anywhere from a red to a purple, but may also include oranges and yellows.

A. cruentus

A. cruentus

Once amaranth has nearly reached its full height, it sends out inflorescences, first from the top of the stalk, and then on down the stalk at each leaf node.  Since the inflorescences appear at different times, the seeds all mature at different rates.  You may want to check each inflorescence about 4 weeks after they first begin to appear, and each week after that.  When most of the seeds in the tassel are dry, you can clip off the tassel and harvest the seeds.  Or you can just cut the whole plant at the end of the season and thresh it and winnow it then.

A. caudatus

A. caudatus

Amaranth grows easily from seeds, but it must be protected from frost.  You can start it indoors 4-6 weeks before spring planting (after the last frost).  The seeds are very small, so cover lightly with soil.  It will germinate quite quickly, sometimes within 3-5 days.  It must be transplanted while it is still small.  The larger it gets, the more difficult it becomes for the plant to establish itself.  Amaranth does not do well with root disturbance. 

You can plant it in a peat pot and just stick the whole pot in the ground at planting time to avoid hurting the plant altogether.  If you buy amaranth from a store or nursery, follow the same principle – buy it small, or make sure it’s in a peat pot.

The seeds can self-sow from previous plants, but they won’t grow until after the last frost.  In some areas (think Alaska) this may be too late for the tassels to form and the seed to fully ripen.  Anywhere else, you’ll probably get at least a good hefty tassel or two from each plant, even if it doesn’t produce as much as it could’ve with a longer season.

Their ability to self-sow so readily may mean that you’ll be pulling up amaranth plants in areas where they were grown before.  It’s easily done, though, and as long as they’re pulled up before they mature and go to seed, they’re easily managed.

Amaranths can reseed themselves almost anywhere. Really.  These are growing in a small cement crack by the storage shed on a research farm we visited.

Amaranths can reseed themselves almost anywhere. Really.
These are growing in a small cement crack by the storage shed on a research farm where my husband used to work. Just like their weedy cousin, Palmer Pigweed, these amaranths are determined growers.

The thick stalk of A. cruentus, growing out of the crack of the cement.

The thick stalk of A. cruentus, growing out of the crack of the cement.

Amaranth is a half hardy annual.  It generally blooms from mid-summer (sometimes early summer) through mid-fall, and it’s a gorgeous and interesting addition to any garden. 

We always have a bit of insect/disease damage on the leaves, but it didn’t affect the overall plant or the yield.  (I’ve never found exactly what is doing the damage and haven’t been able to find a source that can tell me.)

Amaranthus cruentus leaves stalk and seed head flower inflorescence

Toward the end of the summer, the lower leaves will turn yellow naturally, which indicates that it’s nearly time to harvest the heavy, seed-filled tassels.

I have grown amaranth in a pot, very successfully.  It didn’t branch out quite as much as usual, but that could be due to less-than-optimal light as much as being confined to a pot.

You don’t usually have to stake amaranth, (it’s stem is surprisingly strong and well-able to handle the heavy tassel) but when I grew it in a pot I did use a stake because it became top heavy.  If you stake it, be sure to put the stake in when you transplant it, or when you first sow it, to avoid damaging the roots.

As far as self-sufficiency and independence goes, I love having amaranth seeds around.  It’s a grain that can be harvested by hand, and the big, heavy tassels can be cut down at one time, giving a decent harvest in one bunch. If you have a large cloth sack in hand (a clean pillowcase will do), you could harvest several tassels at the same time and easily thresh them. Removing the chaff (mostly the tiny, pink/red flower petals) takes a bit of time until you get the hang of it, but then you have a jar of protein-packed seeds ready to be added to granola, porridge, muesli, or used like popcorn. (Read more on harvesting and saving amaranths seeds.)


Seeds to Grow

Amaranth to Cook With

Whole Grain Amaranth

Amaranth Flour

(As always, before eating anything new, be sure you know exactly what it is.)

The ultimate guide to growing and using amaranth grain amaranthus

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15 Responses to Growing Amaranth: A Seed Grain Related to Quinoa

  1. Amanda November 11, 2014 at 1:16 pm #

    This is really well written and packed with knowledge. I had no idea you could eat the leaves. I have yet to actually try amaranth, but I will seek it out now after learning so much about it.

  2. Jessica November 11, 2014 at 1:25 pm #

    I never realized how pretty a plant it was. great post.

  3. Emily @ Recipes to Nourish November 11, 2014 at 1:26 pm #

    I didn’t know much about Amaranth, thanks for the info. What gorgeous flowers!!!

  4. Sarah @ Sensibly Sustainable November 11, 2014 at 1:58 pm #

    Wow, this is a really cool article! I had never heard of this being something you could eat, but sounds like it’s something I need to look into now! Great tips here, thank you for all of the well laid out info!

  5. The Food Hunter November 11, 2014 at 2:17 pm #

    Very interesting post!

  6. linda spiker November 11, 2014 at 3:19 pm #

    Wow what a beautiful plant! When my husband retires he swears we are going to have a big garden. If we do we will be on your site even more!

  7. Anni November 11, 2014 at 5:49 pm #

    Wow, thank you all so much for your great comments. I’m glad this article has been useful and informative for you! As always, if you have questions, just let me know. :)

  8. Jessica November 11, 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    I can’t tell you how much I love this piece! Amanda above is right…this post is FULL of knowledge! I grew orange giant amaranth in one of my gardens summer before last. They truly were enormous beauties! I liked the leaves when they were young and the seeds were so plentiful and useful!

    You did a great job with your research. I love learning about Amaranth and new ways to use it. Thanks for this great post!

  9. Megan Stevens November 11, 2014 at 9:29 pm #

    Sooooo pretttty!! COOL BEANS, I mean cool pseudograin! LOL :) Really, you write about the best stuff! So interesting, compelling and inspiring. You guys are awesome. Did I miss a bit about sprouting and sourdough? Let me know if you’d like me to write :) a bit about how to predigest amaranth with a cool gluten-free sourdough! That would be a helpful bit of info if you ever add to this article. But let me know if I missed it. Lovely, though, so much great info! Cheers.

  10. Renee Kohley November 12, 2014 at 4:16 am #

    Wow that is such a pretty plant! I had NO idea you could do this yourself – but then again, why not?! Ha! Great info!

  11. Daja at The Provision Room November 12, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    I was just asking my friend what people did with Amaranth plants! Good to know! (Too pretty to eat! LOL!)

  12. Susanne Runion November 12, 2014 at 11:29 pm #

    This is great information. I would never of thought of growing this.

  13. Loriel November 13, 2014 at 1:17 pm #

    What a beautiful plant! I wonder if this would be good to grow to supplement for chickens? I’m always so impressed with how much information is in your posts!

    • curtis July 20, 2015 at 6:51 pm #

      My chickens love the plant and seeds. When thinning the garden the chickens are lined up all the fence.

      • Anni August 12, 2015 at 6:54 pm #

        That’s fabulous! And the greens and seeds are great for chickens. :)

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