Gardening season has arrived in New England. We had snow in mid-April in Vermont, and cool temperatures over the last week, but the threat of a hard freeze now seems negligible. In my mother’s garden beds, dill from last year’s plants has germinated, sending up feathery seedlings. Other green flecks are appearing in the soil. Among the volunteers of spring, one can find many useful plants, including some that most gardeners dismiss as “weeds.”
One such useful plant is amaranth (Amaranthus spp.). Many people are familiar with the high-protein amaranth seeds sold commercially, but may not know that amaranth is also an important green in many parts of the world.
In Taiwan and China it is called xiancai 莧菜 and widely cultivated for its tender and nutritious leaves. A popular cultivar, hong xiancai 紅莧菜, has purple pigment in the leaves and releases a fuchsia color into the cooking broth. Chefs like to capture this vivid color in the plated dish.
Another amaranth cultivar, which is gaining in popularity in the U.S., is “callaloo” (also spelled kallaloo). This cultivar borrows its name from a popular Caribbean dish of stewed greens. The type of amaranth used for the Caribbean dish, with large, tender green leaves, has made its way into North American agriculture. I have found it for sale in farmer’s markets in New York and Massachusetts. It’s a fabulous green.
The wild amaranth that grows in my area is more robust than these commercial cultivars, since it has to fend for itself in a culture that is largely antagonistic to its existence. Red-root amaranth, Amaranthus retroflexus, is a self-seeding plant that is common in areas with human disturbance. Home gardeners and farmers often treat it as a weed, but it makes a wonderful green under the right growing conditions.
Although the spring garden looks messy (for now), many desirable plants have returned: garlic chive, echinacea, anise hyssop, black-eyed susan, chives, lamb’s quarters, and amaranth.
Amaranth seedlings are circled in red. This variety has a distinctive red stem. Lamb’s quarters is in blue; note the silvery wax coating the smallest leaves. Purslane is circled with yellow.
Lamb’s quarters and amaranth often come up together at the edge of agricultural fields.
By mid-June last year, we had abundant greens, both for salad and for cooking.
Amaranth in the Garden
Last spring, I convinced my girlfriend to let me keep some of the seedlings that were coming up in her garden bed. Her preference is for tidy rows, so I transplanted amaranth (and lamb’s quarters) seedlings into neat lines in a prepared bed. These quick-growing plants helped shade the soil around rows of soft lettuces, keeping the lettuces cool and extending their season.
The amaranth plants (and lamb’s quarters) gave us greens for weeks. We harvested tender new growth at the tips. New leaves emerge very quickly from junctures in the stems, providing for future harvesting. If the plants got too tall, I cut them down in size. These are hardy plants that will continue to grow well as long as soil conditions remain favorable. They long outlasted the lettuces.
There was plenty of amaranth growing in a nearby farmer’s field, but growing it in one’s own garden has advantages. Amaranth plants grown in rich, moist soil will have more tender and mild leaves than plants that are growing with more competition in drier soils. Older growth can take on some bitterness.
Amaranth in the Kitchen
Foragers often sing the praises of amaranth greens, which are abundant and nutritious. Dina Falconi says in Foraging and Feasting that they are high in calcium, iron, beta carotene, and vitamin C. Tender leaves are edible raw, but I prefer to harvest a good volume of leaves and cook them, as one does for Caribbean callaloo. Amaranth is a little like spinach and can be used in the same way. Indeed, my daughter says the flavor is like “weird spinach,” a little earthy.
Chinese tend to cook amaranth with oil, garlic, and salt. Some cooks use meat broth to boost umami, but the garlic and amaranth flavors are great on their own. Vegetarians can add a dash of nutritional yeast for umami, if desired.
I like to braise amaranth greens in a little water, oil, garlic, and salt, cooking them covered until soft. Another good way to cook them is to salt some water as if making pasta, boil them, drain them, and serve them with a little olive oil or butter. A squeeze of lemon can be good, too. See Dina Falconi’s wonderful foraging book for other cooking ideas (and for help identifying amaranth).
The seeds of wild amaranths are also edible, but I have not yet experimented with these. I am guessing that birds must love them, as this would explain how amaranth has become so widespread.
Amaranth is generally safe for foraging, but it can concentrate nitrates, especially when growing in agricultural soils that have been treated with fertilizers. Mark Vorderbruggen (author of Foraging in the Idiot’s Guides series) notes that this can make it toxic for babies under 12 months old. Growing it in a home garden that has not been treated with nitrate-rich fertilizer can reduce this risk. Diversifying your diet and exercising moderation also help.
This mid-summer amaranth is showing signs of insect stress and starting to develop flowers (barely visible in the centers), indicating that its value as a green is on the decline. When we stopped eating it, I cut the plants down to the ground and used them as mulch for other garden plants.