Amaranth, or amaranthus, is a group of plants that have been grown for thousands of years as a grain, as a vegetable and for medicinal purposes. Many varieties grow very tall, reaching heights in excess of 6 feet (2 m), with long, colorful plumes of seeds. It is also related to the pigweed plant, which is considered a weed.
This species of plants has a long, rich history, and records indicate the use of this plant as early as 8,000 B.C. Amaranth was the staple food of the ancient Aztecs and grew in abundance, both in the wild and as a cultivated crop. It was not only used as a food source, but among the Aztecs it also was deeply entwined with religion. Amaranth seed was mixed with honey and molded into images of the Aztec gods that were commonly eaten during religious rituals and observances. Not only was this practice banned by the Spanish, the cultivation of amaranth also was banned, as was the harvest of wild amaranth, and it became an offense punishable by execution to be found in possession of any part of this plant.
It is a versatile and tolerant plant, able to withstand intense heat as well as much colder climates. It can tolerate periods of drought, and dry, nutrient-poor earth as well as wet, clay soils. The most common varieties grow tall, with thick stems that are able to withstand strong winds, especially when the plants are grown together.
Although often described as a grain, amaranth is a seed plant, more correctly categorized as a pseudo-grain. The seed of the plant can be dried and stored for long periods of time. The seed, or grain, can be ground into flour and used in baking breads or other flour-based products. Amaranth grains can be “popped” like popcorn or mixed with honey or syrup and turned into healthy snack bars, and they can be cooked with rice or porridge to add texture and flavor. Amaranth contains no gluten, so it is a suitable addition to a gluten-free diet.
Amaranth has the highest nutritional value of all grains and contains no cholesterol, making in an incredibly valuable addition to the diet. Three ounces (100 g) of amaranth contain 0.7 ounces (19 g) of protein, which is more than in the same quantity of oats, wheat, corn or rice. Amaranth also contains significantly more fiber, carbohydrates, calcium and iron than other grains. This pseudo-grain also contains a variety of other minerals and vitamins, as well as amino-acids, which are essential to the human body but are lacking in most other common grains. The leaves and the stems of the plant also contain similarly high levels of valuable nutrients.
The leaves of these plants also can be eaten, used raw in salads or used as spinach or cabbage. In some areas, young stems are peeled, then cooked like asparagus. Amaranth gives a comparatively high yield, especially when the entire plant is used and not just the grain. The average yield varies according to the species grown and a variety of environmental factors, but it is possible to extract 1,000 pounds (450 kg) of seed, or grain, from an acre (4,046 square meters) of this crop.