Amaranth can be grown both for the leaves (which are like spinach) or the grains (which are gluten free and high in protein). The grains when toasted are particularly delicious - amaranth popcorn anyone? With their deep red flower plumes, these plants also make a stunning sight in the growing area.
They are commonly cultivated as a cereal in parts of Central and South America. In the UK they often appear as a weed, especially on the lighter soils in East Anglia.
How to grow
- Plants like a warm open site best, with good drainage and full sun. If you are growing for leaves only, sow outdoors in late May, June or July. They need a minimum of 13 – 18C to germinate.
- If you want to grow for grain production, or have limited amounts of seed, start off plants indoors in large modules sown during late April, slowly harden off and plant out around the second week in June.
- Harvesting is simple. Pick leaves or young shoots as soon as they are large enough to handle. Keep pinching back any flowerbuds to keep the plant producing more leaves.
To collect seeds, only use a few leaves from each plant for cooking and allow flower buds to form. Once seeds have formed (usually from early September onwards) shake the spikes on a warm dry day to see if the grains are ready to drop. Line an old tomato box with newspaper. Cut off the fruiting stalks and lie them in the box, leave them in a warm place to dry, turning the stalks occasionally. The seeds will fall out onto the newspaper and can be collected into a large jar when fully dried. Eat home collected grain within 6 months.
How to eat
Amaranth’s leaves, eaten young (lightly boiled or steamed, with a knob of butter added) are similar to spinach. Red leaved cultivars turn deep mauve when cooked, but if the cooking liquid is saved to cook rice it will turn it a glorious claret-purple colour.
The shiny round seeds are high in protein and free of gluten, so are suitable for sufferers from coeliac disease. However, they have a high saponin content, which needs to be washed out before they can be eaten (bought amaranth is usually ready prepared.) This simple process involves rinsing seeds repeatedly (at least 5 times) in a bowl of water and straining through a fine sieve.
The seeds can be sprouted, made into popcorn, toasted, ground into flour or eaten as cereal. Boiling takes less than 20 minutes, and if the result turns out gloopy rather than slightly sticky then you’ve either overcooked it or used too much liquid!
For a full list of multicultural vegetables see here. They all come from our innovative Sowing New Seeds and Growing From Your Roots projects, when Garden Organic worked with allotment holders of Indian, South American, East Asian, Afro Caribbean and African extraction