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Ancient and Nutritional Amaranth

Learn about amaranth, the ancient grain and eat it for a healthy protein, calcium, and iron packed choice.

| January 2018

  • Easy to grow and packed with nutrients, amaranth will be an important food in a future affected by climate change.
    Illustration by Edith Rewa Barrett
  • “Cattail Moonshine and Milkweed Medicine,” by Tammi Hartung showcasing creative ways people are using these plants today.
    Cover courtesy Storey Publishing

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants (Storey, 2016), by Tammi Hartung a longtime herbalist and organic farmer, tells little-known and captivating stories of how humans have relied on these plants for millennia to nourish, shelter, heal, clothe, and even entertain us. Hartung has been growning and working with herbs for more than 30 years and is a frequent teacher and lecturer. She and her husband cultivate more than 500 varieties of herbs, heirloom food plants, and perennial seed crops on their organic farm in Colorado. The following excerpt is from the “A” section.

Redroot amaranth (Amaranthus retroflexus), red amaranth (A. cruentus), and others.

For years I’ve grown ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth in my gardens. The plants are stunning: almost six feet tall and deep burgundy red. Not only is it a gorgeous dye plant, it’s also a traditional food plant of the Southwest; I add the young leaves to my salads and toss in some of the delicious seeds when I’m making muffins. Packed with protein, calcium, and iron, the seeds are NASA-recommended for space missions!

A Food for the Future

Amaranth could become an important food in a future affected by climate change. It’s easy to grow in many climates (and with limited water), adapts well to different soils, and doesn’t require much fertilizer (whereas other grain crops like corn generally need good soil, abundant water, and lots of fertilizer and pesticides). And because it’s so packed with nutrients, it can help reduce the rates of malnutrition wherever it’s grown.

The Perfect Color Pink

When my daughter, M’lissa, was young, I wanted to make new curtains for her bedroom. I had limited funds available for the project but yards of unbleached muslin cloth in my sewing closet and a lot of ‘Hopi Red Dye’ amaranth growing in my herb garden. Traditionally the flowers, leaves, stalks, and seeds of this amaranth have been used by Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo Indians to color foods and textiles a bright reddish-pink. They call this amaranth komo.

I harvested the entire plant, crushed it up a bit, and steeped it in a sun-heated washtub of water on my back patio for a full day. Then I strained out the herb, placed M’lissa’s newly sewn curtains into the dye bath, and left them to soak overnight. The next day I had bright pink curtains, perfect for a little girl’s bedroom window.

A Popular Ancient Grain

Native Americans have been eating amaranth seeds for thousands of years. The Apaches and Navajos used amaranth to make flour for bread, while the Aztecs and later the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) people of what is now Mexico would make pinole — toasted amaranth or cornmeal that is mixed with sugar, spices, and a bit of water and eaten as hot cereal or cooked into cakes. Amaranth flour, mixed with cornmeal, was made into dumplings, too, and the seeds were popped like popcorn.

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