The Forgotten Grain of the Aztecs
By Justin Butts
Words by: Justin Butts Photos by: Rachel Benavides
Amaranth is a gorgeous landscape or garden plant. It quickly grows up to six feet tall with lush foliage, scarlet or deep-green leaves, and huge flower heads dripping with red or golden grain.
What’s more, both the leaves and grain of amaranth are delicious and highly nutritious! But this nearly perfect plant is seldom grown in Coastal Bend gardens.
Amaranth was a staple food crop of the mighty Aztecs, along with corn, beans, and squash. Amaranth also played an important role in their human sacrifice rituals. The Aztecs mixed amaranth grains with human blood to form little statues of Huitzilopochtli, the sun god. These statues were a delicacy and were eaten like candy.
Cortez was so outraged by this practice that he outlawed the growing of amaranth on pain of death. Cortez was so merciless and effective in his policies that he nearly wiped out amaranth altogether. But this lovely plant is finally resurging in the gardens of The Bend.
Amaranth is easy to grow and will thrive even in the heat of summer. Once your plants are established, you will rarely if ever need to water them.
To seed amaranth directly into your garden or landscape, intensively plant the tiny grains in fertile, well-tilled soil. Thin the newly emerging (and delicious!) sprouts to a final spacing of twelve inches in all directions. Water the garden every few days until the plants are established.
Make your own amaranth transplants by filling small plastic cups nearly to the top with soil and poking holes in the bottom for drainage. Drop a few tiny amaranth seeds on top of the soil and water lightly. When the plants reach six to eight inches tall, plant them in a sunny space in your landscape. This is a fun learning experience for children.
Our favorite varieties include Juana’s Orange, Congo, and Green Callaloo. For stunningly beautiful and edible landscaping, try Hopi Red, Molten Fire, or Love-Lies-Bleeding.
Harvest your amaranth leaves anytime and cook them like greens. They taste similar to spinach but are richer in iron and vitamin C.
Amaranth grains mature in about ninety days. Each stalk contains up to 60,000 grains. Sprinkle these protein-rich grains into bread, pancakes, and oatmeal.Or, pop them like popcorn and mix with honey, nuts, and dried fruit to make your own sweet and healthy candy. In Mexico, this candy, called alegría, is formed into the shape of skulls during the celebration of Dia de los Muertos.