My post about the garden on July 22 included a couple of photos of one of my favorite leafy greens - amaranth. You may be more familiar with ornamental amaranths such as Love Lies Bleeding Amaranthus caudatus or Joseph's Coat Amaranthus tricolor. How about the beautiful but incredibly self sowing Hopi Red Dye Amaranthus cruentus. Or perhaps you have more than a passing familiarity with pigweed? You get a glimpse of what a diverse genus Amaranthus is.
The amaranth in my vegetable garden is a mix of green leaved, white seeded varieties. The flower heads range from green through bronze, both upright and nodding. I got my seeds through the seed savers exchange. Here's the description from the 2005 yearbook:
30 leaf; 130 grain days, for leaf green production, cook as spinach, we are releasing this mix, chosen from our trials and hope it will be widely adapted and will let you select your own local mix, a 4 x 8' bed supplied more leaves than our village could eat all summer, selected for incredibly vigorous growth and soft flavored leaves plus very late flowering so you can pick over and over again without bolting, all white seeded so if you have a long season, you can harvest grain, NOTE: if you reoffer this please (a) do not grow any black-seeded amaranths (they will cross, giving inedible seed) and (b) maintain the ratios of the different types by harvesting separately and then mixing in equal proportions, biomass increase is phenomenal .0002 g seed gives 10 kg plant, a fifty million-fold increase in 90 days, 2 new hybrids added 2003, from CV Vidaverde, mix of late-flowering (short-day) caudatus, hypochondriacus and other hybrids from our collection, original breeding material from David Brenner of ISU, USDA from various countries worldwide.
Right up my alley, if you haven't noticed by now (if you follow my blog) I do tend to go for the rare and/or unusual.
Given the space, these plants can grow up to 10 feet tall. I didn't and still don't have that kind of room so I crowd them together more and keep them cut back. For seed saving I crowd them even more to be sure that I get a good representation of the different varieties. Crowding like that seems to ensure that you get seed from the most vigorous plants that overshadow the weaker ones. Other than that, I just make sure that I don't have any black seeded varieties growing in my own garden. I've saved the seeds for a few years and so far haven't noticed any off types in my subsequent sowings and I've been quite pleased with the eating quality of the plants that I've grown. The aim of the original seed offerer seems to be to develop local vigorous strains from various crosses of the original plant selections so I'm not concerned about isolating the various strains in the mix to ensure their purity. This season I'm not planning on saving seed so I've allowed only a few of the strongest plants that germinated to grow.
The plant shown at the top of the post was direct sown on June 2 and is one of only 2 seedlings that survived the sowbugs. I sowed more seeds in a cell-pack on June 18th and then planted them out when they were large enough to withstand the bugs.
Amaranth is a warm weather vegetable, preferring temperatures over 68F, and thriving in fairly hot temperatures (86F +). In the warmest climates amaranth can tolerate some shade but usually prefers full sun. It's not too fussy about soil and will even tolerate fairly acid soils. It is best to direct sow amaranth, some varieties will tend to bolt when transplanted, but I've had success transplanting very young seedlings. Sow the seeds thickly, whether direct sown or in cell-packs, and thin to the desired spacing. I like to transplant the cell-pack seedlings before thinning and then trim off the weakest seedlings after a few days. The seeds don't germinate well if they receive too much light so they should be well covered with soil.
Amaranth grows very quickly once the seedlings are established. I waited a bit too long to start harvesting the leaves from the first plants and when I finally did I drastically cut back the plants to the ugly stubs you see above, which are actually resprouting fairly well. Behind the stubby plant you can see the new seedlings taking off. Now's the time to top them to encourage stronger side shoots.
Leaf amaranth is a good summer substitute for spinach. Very young leaves can be used in salads but older leaves are best cooked. I prefer amaranth simply prepared. Here's my favorite method for:
Sauteed Amaranth Greens
You will need at least one very large handful of leaves per serving. Remove and discard the stems from the very largest leaves, younger leaves have shorter softer stems that don't have to be removed. Coarsely chop the leaves if they are large. Saute some garlic in a bit of olive oil, add the leaves with a bit of water clinging to them from washing, or add a bit of water to the pan if the leaves are dry. Toss over medium heat until the leaves are wilted, adding more leaves to the pan as there is room - the leaves lose a lot of volume as they wilt. Don't overcook, the leaves become very soft very quickly. Season with salt and pepper to taste and serve warm. Also good with a sprinkle of chile pepper flakes with the garlic if you like spice.
I have lots of seed available to share if you would like to try growing some amaranth greens. You could probably get a crop of greens if you sow some seeds in the next 2 or 3 weeks and can rely on having warm weather for a couple of months after that. Send me an email if you are interested.