Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Annuals

Amaranths: Ancient and Modern

by David Cavagnaro


Amaranthus tricolor 'Elephant Head'

Amaranths are both historic and contemporary plants. Few similarly small groups of plants are as complex and diverse, both genetically and taxonomically. Even within one species, the ranges of forms and uses are remarkable: Some amaranths are pretty, and some are plain; some are big, and some are small; and some are weedy, and others aren't. Such diversity adds to the home gardener's challenge of predicting performance the first season, and perhaps that partially explains why amaranths are underutilized plants.

Your first encounter with an amaranth (whether you knew it or not) most likely was in a weedy garden. Red root pigweed, (Amaranth retroflexus), is a common garden weed coast to coast and North to South. Although the weediness of other amaranths is rarely that extreme, all share a propensity to what is kindly referred to as self-sowing. On the other hand, Janet Marinelli writes in her book, Stalking the Wild Amaranth, (Henry Holt, 1998), that seabeach amaranth (A. pumilus), once common to Long Island sand dunes, is now one of the rarest plants on the planet.

Intriguing and Versatile Plants

The name Amaranth is from the Greek amarantos (meaning which does not fade) and refers to the everlasting quality of the flowers. The ancients associated the long-lasting flowers with the steadfastness of true friendship or love.

Although I don't expect you to share my enthusiasm for these most remarkable plants automatically, I offer some advice: If you haven't grown them before, find some space in your garden this year for an amaranth. I guarantee they'll earn comments from visitors, and they won't disappoint you.

Because the taming of the genus Amaranthus has taken these ancient plants in three broad directions over the centuries -- as decorative plants, greens, or grains -- I group some of the more popular varieties by those primary uses. Broadly speaking, Amaranthus cruentus and A. hypochondriacus are grown for their seeds; A. caudatus, called love-lies-bleeding, is grown for its drooping, tassel-like flowers; and A. tricolor is grown for its brilliant leaf colors and spinachlike leaves. But neat categories like these quickly become muddled because amaranths are naturally promiscuous plants that defy pigeonholing. Here I'll describe my favorite varieties by category.

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