Most gardeners are familiar with the several varieties of ornamental amaranth sold by nurseries, but few realise that this plant is a delicious nutritional powerhouse. In the hot summer months, when growing spinach is near impossible, amaranth thrives.
Easy to grow and tolerant of wide-ranging conditions. Its soft leaves are a great addition to salads and, like spinach, it melts delectably when cooked. Slightly astringent when raw, the greens turn soft and mellow as they cook.
Amaranthus tricolor 'Green Giant' is a vigorous selection that produces slightly savoyed, large mid green leaves. The popular Calaloo in Caribbean cuisine, the leaves can be harvested when plants are just 20 to 50cm (8 to 20in) tall. With a mild spinach flavour, the leaves can be used at babyleaf stage for salad or garnish, or at maturity for steamed vegetable or soups.
Sowing: Late spring through early summer.
Amaranth can be grown in both tropical and temperate zones. Humid, sunny conditions are advantageous but not essential for growth, however the plants will not tolerate frost or freezing temperatures. Like many vegetable crops, it needs at least five hours of sunlight a day to do well.
Amaranth seeds are very fine, so generally, the seeds are sprinkled over a prepared area after the risk of last frost has passed. An early sowing can be made in a greenhouse and the plants transplanted outdoors after the last expected frosts.
A minimum soil temperature of 10°C is required for germination, and is much better once temperatures rise above 20°C. Amaranth plants grow well in average to rich, well-draining soil with equal amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus. While it grows best in moist but well drained soils, they will tolerate somewhat dry soils.
Amaranth seeds can be started early indoors, three to four weeks before the last frost date.
Transplant the plants outdoors to their final position after the last expected frosts.
Sow the seed thinly and cover with a 0.5cm (¼in) of soil. Seedlings appear 2 to 3 weeks after seeds are sown, and can be transplanted when about 2cm (1in) high and showing two to three true leaves. If temperatures are still low, transplant to larger pots to grow on otherwise transplant directly to the garden.
Sow the seeds directly where they are to grow after the risk of last frost has passed and the soil has warmed. Sprinkling the seeds thinly over the prepared area.
Germination is usually rapid and good if the soil is warm. Once the seeds have sprouted, they should be thinned to about 45cm (18in) apart. Successive sowings can be made every fortnight to give a longer cropping period.
When planting directly into the ground the seeds will germinate more successfully if they are sown into a finely prepared seed bed that receives adequate moisture. This can be done anytime from April onwards so long as the threat of late frosts are over. However, it is more important to make sure that soil temperatures are averaging above 16°C. You will be able to sow them earlier if they can be given the protection of a small poly-tunnel. Of course, once the weather stays consistently warm the cover can be removed.
The seeds can be sprinkled thinly over the prepared area or thinly sown into rows 30cm (12in) apart with each row spaced up to 60cm (24in) apart. Cover with a 0.5cm (¼in) of soil, firm gently, and keep moist and weed free. When they are large enough, thin the seedlings out to approximately 1 plant for every 8cm (3in) when using for baby leaf, or 20cm (8in) apart for producing mature plants. If you wish, any thinnings collected can be eaten as you would do with baby leaf salad or they can be added as part of a stir fry.
Once established, amaranth needs little care. It is more tolerant of drought than most other leafy vegetables and will tolerate a wider range of soils than other grain crops.
The crop should be irrigated during hot weather to keep the soil constantly moist for succulent growth, but the crop cannot tolerate wet soil.
Some varieties can get quite tall and may need the support of canes. Check the height of you crop before you sow so that you can place your canes before the plants are of a size that the roots can become damaged by their insertion.
Harvesting Leaves: June to October.
Amaranth generally takes 6 to 8 weeks from sowing to reach the cropping stage. Because of their sub-tropical origins, the plants grow quickly well in warm climates, so much so, that it if you are growing it using the ‘cut-and-grow-again method’ it can be harvested a mere 30 days after sowing. In northern European climates, you should be able to harvest your first crop from June up until October. The leaves taste somewhat like artichoke and can be used at any time. Just like other greens, the smaller the leaf, the more tender it is, but larger leaves have a more developed flavour.
There are several ways to harvest the crop. If you are using the crop for baby leaves, only pick a few leaves per plant. For mature plants, harvest leaves and stem from the top to encourage further side shoots. Alternatively the whole plant may be pulled from the ground, roots and all, when approximately 25cm (10in) tall.
Amaranth plants can regrow rapidly so an alternative method is to cut mature plants back to 3cm (1¼in) above ground level, leaving some of the stem and a few basal leaves to promote regrowth. Growth depends on temperature, but by using these methods, harvesting can continue over several months for the smaller-leaved varieties. Remove any flowers as soon as their buds appear otherwise leaf production will come to an end.
Often referred to as amaranth grain, the seeds can be harvested and ground into a flour or saved for planting the next year. They are also a great bird food.
If you would like to harvest the seeds, you need to allow the plant to go to flower. Flowering plants can still have their leaves harvested to eat, but you may find that the flavour changes after the plant blooms.
Once the flowers have developed, let the amaranth flowers grow fully and watch carefully for the first few flowers to start dying back or browning a bit. At this time, cut all of the flowers off the amaranth plant and place them in paper bags to dry the rest of the way.
Once the amaranth flowers are dry, the flowers must be threshed (basically beaten) either over a cloth or inside a bag to release the seeds. Use water or wind to separate the seed from the chaff.
It is important to know that the leaves or amaranth are soft-textured, and go limp quickly after being picked, so harvest as you need them otherwise you will find a wilted mess in your fridge. Once harvested, before the plant can notice, stick all of the leaves, stem end down, into a large bowl of cold water as if you are making a bouquet. It won’t look like much, but when you come back after an hour or so, the leaves will all be standing up and ready for you to fry them.
There are around 60 species of amaranthus, including weeds, leaf vegetables, grain crops and ornamentals. Many have large, colourful leaves and tassel-like flower spikes. Ornamental varieties, such as 'Joseph's Coat' and 'Flaming Fountain', are grown as bedding plants.
Originating in the topics of America, Africa and Asia, the plants are now grown all over the world. It is an ancient food plant native to South America. So revered was it in ancient Inca and Aztec cultures that it was considered to be a sacred plant.
Both the leaves and seeds are used in culinary dishes. In Asia and the West Indies Amaranthus is widely cultivated and in Jamaica, it is routinely eaten at breakfast and dinner.
The genus name Amaranthus originally comes from the Greek word Auapavboc meaning "one that does not wither" or 'unfading'. Modern Greeks call it Vlita, pronounced VLEE-tah.
The European translation comes from the word amaranton, Nicander’s name for the ‘everlasting’ flowers.
The original spelling is amarant, while the more common spelling amaranth seems to have come from a folk etymology assuming that the final syllable derives from the Greek word anthos (meaning 'flower'), common in botanical names.
The species name tricolor simply means 'three colours'.
Amaranth has different names according to language and dialect, with some examples being Amaranthus, Edible amaranth, Amaranth spinach, Tampala, Quelite. or Chinese Spinach. Bayam (Malaysia and Indonesia), Calaloo or Calalu (Caribbean) and Klaroen (Surinam).
Asian names include Xian cai in Mandarin, Yin choi, In tsoi, Hinn choy or Yin tsoi in Cantonese and Hi-yu-na in Japanese.
- Additional Information
Packet Size 1 gram Average Seed Count 1,900 Seeds Common Name Calaloo , Chinese Spinach, Yin choi, Lin Choi Family Amaranthaceae Genus Amaranthus Species tricolor Cultivar Green Giant Synonym Callaloo Hardiness Half Hardy Annual Natural Flower Time Late June, through October Foliage Green Height 35cm (14in) tall Position Full Sun Soil Well-drained/light soil Time to Sow Late spring through early summer. Germination 4 to 10 days at 22°C (70°F)