Fiann Ó Nualláin discusses the hot new superfood in town, Amaranth — an old stalwart of municipal borders
Before being a staple of municipal planting schemes and gardeners’ borders, Amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus, A. hypochondriacus and A. caudatus etc) aka love-lies-bleeding — was for the ancient Aztec culture, a staple food crop and revered plant.
So important to the region was it, that Cortez under the usual colonisers’ default setting of cultural genocide, decreed a death penalty on anyone growing the crop.
Disruption always ensures an easier takeover, but he couldn’t kill cultivation and the plant is grown worldwide today for its ornamental value and as an edible crop.
Amaranth has been in cultivation for eight thousand years as a grain and food source and has never been as popular as today — it’s a grain that’s not a grain and in the cluster of glossy-mag, faddish diets that push portions of paleo and gluten-free, it is not lost that the edible seed is gluten-free.
Texturally it is similar to quinoa, high in protein with a nutty flavour it has merit in the kitchen but when it comes to medicinal cookery it really stands outs.
Packed with phytosterols and antioxidants – abundant in essential amino acids, especially lysine — it’s a real health food and one you can easily grow.
What I love about amaranth is that it’s not a single crop. The foliage and roots are also edible.
The ancient Greeks knew it and grew it too.
In fact amaranth is a Greek word that translates as ‘unwithering’ denoting the sturdiness of the crop and the benefits of eating it.
It became a symbol of immortality in Greek culture and pervades their love poetry and also as a dress flower for tombs and temples.
If you have ever visited Greece or a Greek restaurant and had ‘vlita’ then you have already sampled the tasty treat that is the boiled and oil-drizzled foliage of amaranth. The leaves are also full of lysine.
What’s with the lysine, Fiann? Well L-lysine to be correct, is one of the eight essential amino acids we need for optimum health but it cannot be produced by the human body and so must be consumed regularly.
It has a role in supporting a healthy immune system and is directly involved in the development of antibodies. (Great for cold sores).
In the traditional medicine of China, amaranth was utilised for its antiviral properties.
In modern nutritional therapy, Lysine is utilised to decrease occurrences of anxiety and tension headaches.
In cosmeceutical terms, it is involved in protein biosynthesis and so assists formation of collagen, hair shafts, nails and also muscle tissue — so features on the checklist for aspiring beauty queens and weightlifters too.
When it comes to the latter, the protein content of amaranth is admirable — there is approximately 8 grams of protein in a serving of 1/4 cup.
Both Amaranth leaves and grain have plenty of iron, magnesium, calcium, potassium and phosphorus as well as ample vitamin K – a super boost to cardiovascular health.
Amaranth foliage supplies carotenoids and vitamin C, vitamin B6 and folate but there are few other leafy vegetables that contain such a high level of calcium — making it worth a place on your plate if you’re looking to prevent osteoporosis.
That said, amaranth leaves contain oxalates which can sometimes hamper the efficient absorption of the calcium in the intestines. Cooking diminishes oxalates.
The grain is gaining ground over quinoa and other superfoods and a big part of this, beyond the gluten free aspect, is the fact that the grains of amaranth are generally between 5% to 9% oil and this fatty acid content exhibits beneficial anti-inflammatory activity and is full of cholesterol-lowering properties.
So how to grow:
Amaranth is a warm climate species, so is heat and drought resistant.
Give it a sunny location, if sheltered they will flower and yield until the frosts.
In terms of selecting a site, they prefer a well-drained fertile site.
The more fertile the site the taller the plant — I used to grow them in ornamental borders amongst grasses and they would easily hit 1 metre tall, then when I began to grow them as a crop in raised beds they hit double that.
Being drought tolerant doesn’t mean you shouldn’t water regularly. Comfrey feed is beneficial.
They are easy enough started from seed — but local garden centres will have modular trays of healthy plants now — perfect to plant out.
Amaranth will often keep flowering until the arrival of the first frosts — so there is a good stretch of harvest opportunities; as you go or in a couple of concerted batches.
In general flower heads will begin to ripen after about three months.
Ripeness can be ascertained by a caress of the flower head — with ripe heads easily dropping seed. A shake or ruffling into a paper bag or container will suffice.
You can cut ripe heads that are stubbornly holding onto seed and be a bit more heavy handed with them (try wrapped in a tea towel). Sieving or a winnowing method of your choice will remove any particles of chaff, petal or dirt.
The harvested seed can be made into porridge (roughly 10 minutes on the boil) or ground to make a high protein-packed polenta.
It is often used as seed topping to favourite dishes, salads or baked foods.
In parts of South America, amaranth grain is sold on the streets, popped like popcorn. Try that at home. Delicious.
Long before you get to the harvest, the sheer beauty of this tassel flower will make your borders or allotment look like a festival.
The almost opulent flowers will bring a bit of decadence and there is nothing wrong with that, as the warm nights unfold.
And then there is the other reason for growing it – screw you Cortez!
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