Almost Amaranth, Week Ending 10/6/2019

I’m just not very good at foraging amaranth. 

Which is all the more ironic because this year, I grew two different varieties of grain amaranth: Golden amaranth (Amaranthus hypochondriacus), with its pale leaves and golden flowers; and Mayo Indian amaranth (Amaranthus cruentus) whose leaves tend towards reddish-purple. The cultivated amaranth has gorgeous color and much larger flowers and seed heads. I planted them in various locations in the yard as edible landscaping although none of them really reached the size – up to eight feet – I was expecting based on the seed catalog descriptions. 

Golden and Mayo Indian amaranth - edible and beautiful
Golden and Mayo Indian amaranth – edible and beautiful

Additionally, common amaranth (Aramathus retroflexus) grows abundantly locally as well. Unfortunately most of it is along roadsides or even growing in the middle of the industrial farming operation fields, neither of which is conducive to foraging. Luckily, at least two volunteers have graced my own yard, relatively protected from pesticides, herbicides, and roadway runoff.

A volunteer common amaranth in my garden... no, I couldn't bring myself to remove it!
A volunteer common amaranth in my garden… no, I couldn’t bring myself to remove it!

Despite all this amaranthy abundance, I did a terrible job using either domestic or wild amaranth as a green (or gold or purple) vegetable this year. Although as far as foraging goes, I neglected to harvest significant amounts of lambsquarter as well. Or black nightshade, come to think of it, but I had a good reason there. I was waiting for flowers for a positive identification, by which time you should not eat the leaves. I don’t know why I even bother growing kale or chard or other greens in my garden, when there are so many options for potherbs growing wild around me!

Since I failed to leverage amaranth greens, I consoled myself with intentions to harvest them as a seed crop. (Technically amaranth “grains” are actually seeds, since grains are the hard-coated fruit harvested from grasses… and yes, that is a massive oversimplification of botany’s subtlety.)

Well… so far that hasn’t been going well either. I waited until the seed heads were large and flopped over, thinking this meant the tops were being weighed down by a bounty of tiny, shiny seeds.

Apparently I was too late to harvest the seeds from these amaranth plants
Apparently I was too late to harvest the seeds from these amaranth plants

However once I collected the tops and started checking them, there were very few seeds to be found. It looks like I waited too long! I rubbed chunks of seed head between my palms, but few seeds fell out. I used a wire mesh strainer to separate most of the remaining plant matter from the seeds, but there weren’t even enough to bother photographing for this post. 

I have to process the amaranth for seed as soon as I harvest it because I lack a barn or a carport or other location, where the seed heads, or even whole plants, can be hung to dry gradually and the seeds fall into a container of some sort. Some authors also suggest threshing the amaranth seed heads, but I didn’t have any good surface upon which to smack the seed heads (or to lay them on and whack them with something else). 

I managed to harvest more seeds last year… but then I lost too much of the crop while winnowing to remove the chaff mixed in with the seeds. The “easy” way to winnow is to pour the seeds between two bowls on a breezy day – or in front of a fan, if you don’t have a breeze handy. My problem was the “breeze” was gusty enough it blew away both chaff and seeds! This is why I have wild amaranth growing right outside my backdoor! And at that point, it wasn’t worth keeping the handful of seeds left.

Winnowing removes the inedible chaff from the shiny round seeds
Winnowing removes the inedible chaff from the shiny round seeds

I need a better system for harvesting the seeds, honestly. Right now it takes more work than I would actually get out of the food. At some point, I may invest in “seed cleaning screens” to help separate the seeds from the chaff. Amaranth seeds store well and would be a great source of protein and calories during the winter there is less food available. Fall is a fantastic time to harvest produce for the cold dark days ahead. Or to try to harvest, anyway. Luckily we have grocery stores to get us through the leaner months but if we encounter a more resource-constrained future, that may not always be the case.  

I suspect I would do a better job growing and harvesting amaranth in that lower-energy future that may come about someday. Part of my present-day challenge is that amaranth doesn’t satisfy a dietary gap for me. My daily fair is primarily vegetables, lean meats, nuts, dairy and occasionally fruit. I very rarely eat cereal or cereal-based food items. Although the recipes here definitely give me some good ideas. I’m amused that some of them call for as much as two cups of amaranth – more than I harvested last year after trying to winnow the chaff. (Before I threw them all in the compost in a fit of rage. Yes, really. Don’t judge.) Also, wild amaranth isn’t NEARLY as photogenic as the store bought stuff. The amaranth sold in stores has pale colored seeds, whereas wild amaranth has black seeds. They will present quite a food photography challenge … if I ever collect enough to cook with!

Golden amaranth in the fall. It should have grown much taller, but it is still beautiful.
Golden amaranth in the fall. It should have grown much taller, but it is still beautiful.

Point being, I haven’t felt the same level of urgency to use amaranth seeds as a local and sustainable replacement for something imported, the same way as there might be for other dietary staples. I have a lot more immediate and regular use for the amaranth greens, since I cook and consume greens as a vegetable on a regular basis. (For the record, I encountered similar challenges growing buckwheat for seed.)

My one consolation in this failure is thoughts of the future. Amaranth self-pollinates and can also be pollinated via wind; cultivated species and wild alike apparently cross-pollinate quite happily. It will be interesting to see if I have any volunteers next year that clearly show characteristics of either of my cultivated varieties and A. retroflexus. I hope at least the cultivated seeds I failed to harvest might self-seed and grow anew in the spring.

Next year, amaranth. Next year.

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