If you've never tried growing amaranth before, now is the time. Amaranth is a wonderfully versatile plant that's a beautiful flower, a delicious vegetable, and a nutritious grain all in one. It even has medicinal qualities. In other words, it's the ideal plant for edible landscaping.
You often hear amaranth called an ancient grain because it was once grown and harvested by Aztec and Inca civilizations. Technically, while we think of amaranth as one, it's not related to true grains such as corn or wheat. Amaranth is related to spinach and swiss chard.
I first started growing amaranth because I was taking the plant's vibrant red flowers to the farmers market. Then one year, time got away from me, and the flowers went to seed. My family and I had so much fun popping the seeds and adding them to cookies that I decided to grow the plant for food as well.
The flowers themselves can be 2-feet tall and are a brilliant burgundy color. They're perfect as the centerpiece in bouquets. Humans aren't the only ones who love the flowers. Amaranth attracts bees and butterflies as well.
As a food, the seeds make a delicious grain substitute that is gluten-free and packed with protein. The leaves make a nutty, sweet alternative to kale. If you have livestock, your chickens and hogs will also appreciate your growing amaranth.
Different species of amaranth will produce different qualities of leaves, flowers or seeds. There are over 70 different varieties, so there are plenty of options depending on your goals. Below are a few types to help you pick.
- Burgundy (Amaranthus hypochondriacus) – This is an all-around variety that has tender young leaves for salads and grows six feet tall to produce a stunning crop of flowers. It also produces tasty seeds. It matures in 50 days for a salad crop and 90-100 days for flowers and seeds. Burgundy also makes a nice microgreen with a subtly sweet flavor.
- Love Lies Bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) – This variety is primarily ornamental, but you can still eat it. The flower blooms in a cascading waterfall of color. You may think of the birds as pests, but if you enjoy feeding your local songbirds, such as goldfinches, this is a great variety for them.
- Plainsman (Amaranth hypochondriacus x hybridus) – This is a popular commercial variety you should pick if your goal is to harvest the grain. It grows 5-6 feet tall with a single, unbranched stem which was developed for mechanical harvesting. The maroon flowers are not as colorful as some other varieties.
- Opopeo Amaranth Grain (Amaranthus cruentus) – This is my favorite variety because it is easy to grow and versatile. Opopeo takes 65 days to flower and 125 days to produce seed. It can also be used for leaf production until the plant is 2 feet tall. After that the leaves get bitter, and you can let the plant go to seed.
- Mercado (Amaranthaceae Amaranthus hypochondriacus) – This variety takes a long time to mature, at least 125 days, but apple-green seedheads yield a particularly tasty seed. Ideal for drought-prone areas. It will self-seed and return if you let it.
- Joseph's Coat (Amaranthus tricolor) – Joseph's Coat is known for its stunning foliage, which develops into a tri-color riot of red, yellow and green. The blossoms are fairly innocuous, so don't pick this variety if you want showy flowers.
- Juana's Orange (Amaranthus cruentus) – Pick this variety if you want a taste of an heirloom seed preserved by a woman and her family in Guatemala.
- Pigweed – Pigweed is in the amaranth family. You may look at pigweed as a delightful wild edible or as an obnoxious weed. It can be both. This variety is not as tasty as the domestic ones. Pigweeds don't get as tall or produce as much grain as the domestic amaranth, but if you struggle to get amaranth to thrive, you might want to give it a go. Or you can always forage it because it grows wild practically everywhere.
How to Plant Amaranth
Amaranth grows well in zones 5-9.
You can start them inside 6-8 weeks before the last frost or direct seed outside once the danger of frost has passed
If you direct seed outdoors, wait for soil temps to reach 65°F. Amaranth seeds are small, so sprinkle them onto prepared soil and top with a thin layer of earth.
Indoors, plant seeds one-fourth of an inch deep and keep moist.
Seeds aren't fussy to start and will germinate in under a week in temperatures between 65-80°F.
Thin seedlings 10-12 inches apart after they've sprouted. Plant seeds or transplants in the garden 6 to 18-inches apart with 18 inches between rows. Amaranth is a tall plant and can get up to 8-feet tall depending on the variety and conditions.
Amaranth is flexible when it comes to soil but prefers well-drained earth with a pH between 6.0 to 7.5, so spread some cottonseed meal or coffee grounds in the row where you are going to plant. If you can, it's best to do this in the fall before spring planting. That way the cotton seed breaks down over the winter.
Growing amaranth plants need full sun with at least 6 hours per day.
Caring For Your Amaranth
Once it get's going, growing amaranth doesn't require much in the way of maintenance.
Amaranth likes nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, so a garden with lots of compost manure will make them happy. In addition, I like to use fish emulsion on my leaf crops.
It is important to keep up with weeding as young plants are easily smothered by encroaching weeds. Amaranth has shallow roots so take care when you're hoeing or cultivating. It's best to cultivate by hand when working close to the plant's stem.
Amaranth is drought tolerant. However, to produce nice leaves, make sure to keep the soil moist at the root level. Ideally, amaranth needs a few inches of water once or twice a week.
Rotate plants from year to year to avoid diseases. Don't plant where you've had brassicas the previous year. If you want to make sure you have a continuous supply of leaves and flowers, you can plant amaranth 2 weeks apart. Keep in mind that if you want seeds before frost hits, be sure your last planting takes place 100 days before the first frost in fall.
Amaranth Problems, Pests, and Diseases
While it can be susceptible to some problems, growing amaranth isn't such a challenge that you should forgo planting.
Tarnished Plant Bug
Tarnished plant bug (Lygus) is a small, one-fourth of an inch, a brownish bug with dark markings on their backs and wings. Both adults and nymphs suck the fluids out of plants.
Their mouths contain a toxin which leaves behind tiny brown spots on the leaves. They also attack greens such as lettuces. The adults overwinter and lay eggs in the spring so plan ahead to prevent them in the winter.
During the season you can control the tarnished plant bug by using row covers when the amaranth is young. White sticky traps are effective to catch them, and parasitic wasps are an effective biological control.
Amaranth is susceptible to root gall nematodes. These microscopic worm-shaped invertebrates are parasites that eat your plant's roots. As they munch down on your plant, they excrete an enzyme which causes swelling. This is the bump or gall you may see on plant roots. You can buy organic soil soaks that contain saponins to kill the nematodes.
Control this arachnid by pruning infested leaves and blasting plants with a strong spray of water. You can also spray plants with neem oil.
Aphids are tiny, (usually) wingless pests that feed on plant juices. You'll often see curling, stunted leaves that may be covered in a sticky substance. Spray them off with a strong blast of water, or spritz plants with a concoction made out of water, dish soap and cayenne pepper. You can also plant mustard and nasturtium as trap plants near amaranth.
Set out traps or grit to control snails.
Cutworms nibble on your plants at the base, effectively cutting them. Control them by picking them off or sprinkling diatomaceous around plants. Prevent them by tilling your garden in the fall.
If you notice folded or rolled leaves on your amaranth, you may have leafrollers. This caterpillar creates nests inside leaves by rolling up the plant with silk. Cut off infected leaves.
Leafminers restrict plant growth and yield. You can spot them by the squiggly lines they leave behind in plant leaves. If you catch this early, you can regularly squeeze the tunnels in the leaves to crush the bugs. You can also use sticky traps or spray plants with neem oil.
Flea beetle infestations can kill an entire crop, so keep an eye out for these tiny jumping pests. Be sure to till your garden in the fall to prevent these. Use sticky traps and diatomaceous earth to control. Trap crops like mustard and radish will keep them away from your amaranth.
Pigweed weevil feeds on amaranth foilage and will cause plants to collapse. Destroy infected plants if you see weevils.
White rust is an infection that shows up on the leaf as white blisters. It's not actual rust like your fruit trees may get, but rather a fungus. It frequently affects brassicas, causing deformed leaves and stems.
Prevention is based on having a “clean” garden because the fungus spores will hide under the leaf matter. Don’t put affected plants in the compost. Make sure you rotate your crops.
When growing amaranth seeds, make sure to sterilize pots and tools, and use clean soil to prevent damping off.
Wet Rot and Root Rot
Choanephora blight (wet rot) and root rot are fungi that can destroy a plant. Avoid overhead watering and make sure to plant in a well-drained area. You can also control them using a fungicide.
Alternaria Leaf Spot
Alternaria leaf spot causes a plaque-like spot to form on leaves and fruits. It's hard to cure, so avoid this fungus by rotating crops regularly, add plenty of mulch around new plants and clean up leaves in the fall.
While they aren't a traditional pest, birds love amaranth – a lot. Depending on your viewpoint, this can be a positive or negative. If birds are a pest, you can cover your amaranth with bird netting. It's best to use poles to hold up the netting, so it does not squash your flower seeds heads.
Companion Plants for Growing Amaranth
Good Companion Plants:
Plant amaranth next to corn to shade the ground and help retain moisture. A study found that marigolds are helpful in nematode protection. Below are a few other plants that work well with amaranth.
Bad Companion Plants:
Don't plant amaranth with crocus plants.
Harvesting and Storing Amaranth
When growing amaranth, harvest time depends on what you are growing the plants for. Leaves can be ready a month after planting, while flowers take about 2 months and seeds up to 3 or more months.
Harvesting Leaves, Seeds and Flowers
Amaranth leaves are ready to harvest in about 30 -45 days. Clip the leaves from the plant with a sharp pair of scissors. Plants will keep growing until frost.
You can also pull the whole plant up by the roots. It will wilt quickly in hot weather so put in the fridge or plunge into cold water.
Seeds are ready when the leaves drop, and you can gently roll the head between thumb and fingers. If the seeds fall out readily, then it's time to harvest. If you're having wet weather, you can cut the stalks and hang them to dry over a clean sheet. Give them a good shake after they've dried.
Each flower spike gives you 4 to 8 ounces of seed.
When harvesting flowers, cut the flowers before they go to seed and get them in water quickly.
After harvesting, dry the seeds for a day or two and then store in a dark, dry place in an airtight container. Seeds will last for a year or more this way.
Amaranth is often considered a “super food” because it is high in vitamin A, vitamin C, fiber, and amino acids including lysine. It's also packed with protein, about 16 percent compared to 10 percent in most other grains. It's comparable to quinoa in that way.
Amaranth is deliciously fried or cooked with tomatoes, onions and bell peppers in a typical southern style. In South America, the leaves are often served with meat or fish.
In Mexico, they mix popped amaranth with honey for a granola bar-like a snack. You can also pop the seeds like popcorn or ground them up as a wheat flour alternative.
Amaranth seeds can be boiled like oatmeal to make a tasty porridge. I like to mix seeds with eggs, bread crumbs, and garlic, form them into patties and then fry them in a pan with butter. Amaranth flour makes a killer pancake.
Don't ignore amaranth leaves, because they're also delicious. Smaller leaves are more tender and larger leaves are more flavorful. Young amaranth leaves can be eaten raw in salads. Older leaves are best cooked like spinach or chard because they can get bitter.
We all have plants we like to grow for “fun.” Amaranth is one of those fun plants for me. The leaves and seeds are an excellent source of nutrition, but I love just to watch the plants grow. The tall stalks are an impressive addition to the garden, and when the wind blows the flowers wave back and forth like vibrant, fuzzy flags.