Fields, Forests & Wetlands Foods of Eastern North America
A Complete Wild Food Guide
Green Amaranth Leaves & Grain
Season: Greens: Summer. Grain: Late Summer & Early Fall
Urban, Rural or Both: Both
The Amaranth (Amaranthus) is a huge family of plants that seem to be just about everywhere. There must be over 40 different kinds, and all quite distinctive. To complicate the matter more, each one seems have at least half a dozen common names. If the subject was covered fully, the book would make a good door-stop. There are a few that are cultivated for ornamentals (Like the beautiful Love Lies Bleeding), and a few that are cultivated for their tan-yellow grain found in health food stores.
For Cooked Greens:
The one I use for greens is the Green Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus), a very common weed that is a major problem for soy bean farmers. It is also called the Redroot Amaranth, as it has a red root. Other variants may be usable for greens, I don't know, I only use this one. This Green Amaranth likes hot weather, and they are rarely found in early spring. They are a summer plant, and tend to come up after a hot spell. Use the top, young leaves only.
Don't bother eating the young leaves raw, they don't taste all that good in my experience, although I've read some people do like them raw. Boil them, discard the water (don't use for soups, etc.) and use the cooked greens in other dishes (like you might use cooked Kale or Spinach) and they are quite good.
The black seeds are very healthy, nutty tasting and very high in protein. The yellow seed version of it grown in Central America was a food staple for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It was popped like popcorn and mixed with honey and eaten in small cakes when cool. The yellow version of the seed is available at health food stores. I've used the shiny black seeds from the Green Amaranth and found it is just as good and looks great in foods.
It can be mixed with other grains and boiled quickly into a hot breakfast cereal, or ground into flour and mixed with buckwheat for pancakes. It can be used whole mixed with flour and made into bread. It adds protein and a nice nutty flavor. If you want to grind it into flour, a clean small coffee grinder works best and is easy to do.
Popping Amaranth seed truly is an art. Too little heat and they will not pop, too much and they will burn. Use no oil, heat a pan or pot until it is fairly hot, put in a couple of tablespoons of Amaranth seeds and gently move the pot around to keep the seeds moving. When you get the technique down, you will be able to do this about 5 times in 15 minutes, and have enough for a bowl of popped amaranth cereal, or mixing with honey when still hot after popping, forming into cakes and letting cool. Very tasty. Like I say, it is an art, and will take a while to get the hang of it.
Harvesting the Grain:
You can get a fair bit for the effort if you have big plants that are fully ripe, however the chaff from the seed heads can get into your skin and be very itchy and uncomfortable. You must wear gloves and not just thin cotton gloves. Leather works, but the best I have found are thick rubber coated gloves with the cotton lining - the kind used for working with chemicals, they look like industrial versions of dishwashing gloves.
- Only gather when the weather has been dry for at least a few days - the seed heads must be completely dry.
- To see if it is ready for harvest, hold a sheet of white paper under the bent over seed head and shake it a little. If you see tiny shiny black seeds falling on the paper it is time.
- Use an old pillow case to gather with. Put the top of the pillow case gently over the seed head, using your hand clamp the pillow case around the stalk just below the seed head, bend the seed head over and snip off the seed head with a sharp pair of scissors, then let the seed head drop into the pillow case. The idea is to capture all the seeds - with any movement seeds will fall out. If you carefully bend them over a bucket and cut off, that works too.
- When you have gathered a bunch of them (don't fill the pillow case more than a third full), hang the pillowcase up on a clothesline or something similar (with gloves on) and aggressively rub around the seed heads inside the pillow case. Another way is dump all the seed heads into a large container (clean garbage can, or very large storage container) and rub the seed heads with the gloves on to break it all up.
- After you have done this for long enough that it feels like the seeds heads have been broken down a lot, carefully take the pillowcase holding it so that there is a small opening, pour out the grain and chaff into a bucket trying to hold back the larger bits and stems. Repeat the rubbing process with what is left to get more.
- On a breezy day, or in front of a fan, very slowly pour the grain from one bucket to another so that the black seeds land in the bucket and the chaff blows past it. It is an art, so take your time and repeat the process over and over until fully cleaned. You really have to get all the chaff out, as it gets caught in the back of your throat if you have some left in. Be patient and take your time.
Growing this plant in your home garden:
For detailed growing instructions, go to my Wild Foods Home Garden website Amaranth (Green) page.
- Plant Size: Up to 3 meters (10 feet), usually 1 to 2 meters (3 to 6 feet)
- Duration: Annual
- Leaf Shape: Simple - Lanceolate (upper leaves), Ovate to Rhomboid (lower leaves)
- Leaf Phyllotaxis (Leaf Arrangement) on branch: Alternate
- Leaf Size: Up to 15 cm (5 1/2 inches), usually smaller
- Leaf Margin: Entire (no sawtooth or lobes), often wavy
- Flowers: Spike of green, turning reddish or yellowish, then tan-brown in fall. Fuzzy looking, scratchy feeling
- Fruit: very small shiny black seed, almost spherical to egg shaped
- Habitat: disturbed, open conditions such as ploughed fields, dug gardens
- Recipe search on the web here (Google search) and here (Bing search).
- Pictures on the web here (Google images) and here (Bing images).
- USDA distribution map and plant profile here.
- The Biota of North America Program (BONAP) distribution map here. BONAP map color key here.
A group of young Green Amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus). The top yellow-green leaves are choice for eating.
Amaranth with Seed Head. This is still too green to harvest.
Amaranth seeds (grain) - very small. (Steve Hurst, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database)
Amaranth Seed head. (Robert H. Mohlenbrock, hosted by the USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA SCS. 1989. Midwest wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. Midwest National Technical Center, Lincoln)
Amaranth drawing. (USDA-NRCS PLANTS Database / USDA NRCS. Wetland flora: Field office illustrated guide to plant species. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service)
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