Amaranth is an ancient grain. Its family name is Amanthaceae, with nearly 900 species worldwide. This article focuses on the non-native species Amaranthus caudatus, a species grown by the Aztec Indians of Mexico 8000 years ago, and which has naturalized in my area, Northern California. Yes, that the popular amaranth in our garden is not native was a concern to me when considering it as a topic for this blog site. However, I am taking the time to discuss it here because of its generous gift to both humans and wildlife as a food source.
Amaranth likes disturbed soils. It gets its common name “pigweed” because it frequently thrives in the disturbed soils of barnyards, especially pig pens. But because there are so many plants commonly referred to as pigweed, I use “amaranth” in this article. Furthermore, I do not use Amaranthus caudatus‘s other common name, “love-lies-bleeding”, because that’s just plain weird! We’ll stick to “amaranth”.
A curious thing happened in our garden recently. We reclaimed a garden bed that had laid fallow– it was an excellent undisturbed wildlife brush pile creating excellent soil!!! The soil was pushed back off off walkway slates and churned into a planting mound. It was disturbed, first time in a couple of years. Up came amaranth, all along the borders of the bed, some on the mound. Yes, there’s cucumber in there somewhere.
The young amaranth leaves have been a delicious salad addition. Tastes a little like soil to me, but I appreciate the not-iceberg-lettuce! hearty flavor.
Amaranth is considered an insectary plant, and that’s no wonder considering how many zillions (don’t quote me) of flowerlets there are, with each needing to be pollinated before becoming a seed.
The substantial sturdy stems of amaranth can become so ridged and thick that an adult’s hand just reaches around it. Inside is a porous pith — perfect burrowing material for insects. At harvest time, don’t forget to leave some stalks in the garden to encourage wildlife to overwinter in your garden. Besides, you will never get the last seed from the Medusa of flowers, but hungry songbirds might. So leave harvested stalks in your garden. One person’s “debris” could be a whole ecosystem’s habitat.
The advantages for including amaranth in my edible garden, which is within our “habitat food forest”, keep adding up. Buckwheat and amaranth pancakes for us, pollen and leafage for insects and small critters, seed for birds, a soil builder, and an overwintering material for insects and soil critters.
Enjoy your wildlife habitat garden!
Some Extra Photos: