Gardening Articles: Flowers :: Annuals

Amaranths: Ancient and Modern (page 4 of 5)

by David Cavagnaro

Grain Amaranths

These plants have been staple crops since the time of the Incas and earlier in South America. They grow 6 to 9 feet tall and have tough, woody trunks. A. cruentus and A. hypochondriacus are the best grain producers, and they're also decorative, yielding giant monochromatic or bicolored plumed flower clusters in green, red, burgundy, or gold, sometimes with purple foliage or leaves that turn brilliant red as the seed matures in early autumn.

As a grain crop, amaranth has two distinct advantages over other grain crops. Nutritionally, it's similar to soybeans and especially prized for its concentration of lysine, a necessary amino acid that's scarce in most grains. Amaranth is also extremely drought-tolerant, demanding only half the water corn needs and slightly less than half the water required by wheat. Breeding work since the 1970s has yielded shorter, more productive, and more easily harvested varieties, and now amaranth grain and products can be found on most supermarket shelves.

My favorite grain varieties are deep red 'Burgundy', 'Golden Grain' (with bronze flower heads), and 'San Martin', which produces green and purple leaves and flowers.

Home gardeners have been shy to grow grain amaranth, thinking it difficult to harvest and process. Not so! After corn, it's the easiest of all grains to grow and process by hand. A patch of roughly 40 square feet yields about 3 gallons of cleaned, dried grain -- enough to last a family of four a year or more. The seeds are very tiny but long-lived. A quart of seed lasts me at least 10 years before I must buy or save more.

Though seeds of all amaranths are edible, the small, black seeds of vegetable and ornamental varieties are not as useful as grain, mostly because they are more difficult to grind. Amaranth seeds will pop somewhat like popcorn if dry-roasted in a hot pan. Roasted or ground, they make a tasty, nutty cooked cereal, either alone or added to oatmeal.

We use our amaranth, however, mostly as flour, ground in an electric or hand-cranked mill, in bread recipes, where it adds important protein and excellent taste. (Because the flour lacks gluten, amaranth is best kept to less than a quarter of the total flour called for in most bread recipes.) Amaranth flour also makes a good additive to cookie dough and other baked-dessert recipes.

Harvesting grains. Colorful flower heads appear in midsummer, gradually maturing their heavy yield of grain toward autumn. You can assess grain ripeness two ways. First, watch the birds. As the seeds mature, small-seed eaters, such as finches, will begin to take obvious (and eventually destructive) interest. Second, rub the flower heads between your fingers into the palm of your hand. When seeds shatter out easily and abundantly from most of the flower clusters, it's time to harvest. Don't wait too long, lest the wind, rain, and birds take their tolls.

Harvesting and threshing take a good part of one day, and winnowing a small part of another: not bad for a year's supply of nutritious grain! The process begins in the garden patch with a clean wheelbarrow and shears. Carefully cut all main and side-shoot seedheads and transport them by wheelbarrow to one side of a clean, discarded bedsheet.

Threshing by hand is the most time-consuming part of the process. Sitting on a 5-gallon bucket or wooden stump, I vigorously rub each seedhead between my hands, loosening the seeds, then bang them out against the bucket or stump. Hands quickly become colored from the seedheads, but the dye washes off. I much prefer threshing fresh-harvested seed to the alternative technique of drying the heads first. The prickly texture of dried amaranth precludes hand rubbing. I have threshed dried amaranth by stomping on the heads on a concrete floor, then screening them, but in that case you have to separate all parts of the seedheads, which is a bulky, prickly, and more difficult process in my opinion, even if it might be faster.

Once I've threshed all the heads, I spread out the grain, rake out most of the larger chaff, and let the threshed grain dry in the sun. (At night, I take the whole sheet, like a bag, inside.) Two or three warm days are usually sufficient for thorough drying.

When drying is complete, screening and winnowing follow. I have a hardware-cloth soil sifter (on a 2-by-4 frame) that fits on top of my wheelbarrow. I line the sifter with a piece of window screen and rub a gallon or so of seed at a time through the mesh, removing all but the seeds themselves and their papery caps. I use an old vacuum-cleaner motor to blow the chaff out of the seeds while they're still in the wheelbarrow; a fan or hair dryer would work, too, as would the ancient way of dropping seeds onto the sheet from above on a windy day. The entire cleaning process for 3 gallons seldom takes more than an hour. I store the cleaned grain in gallon jars in a cool, dry basement.

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