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Amaranthus plants in a field.
Originally from the South American Andes, amaranth is an 'old world' plant that offers many nutritional benefits. There are many ornamental varieties of amaranth, with variegated foliage and flowers/tassels in shades from green and gold to deep purple.

 

What you need to know about amaranth

Name: Amaranth, tassel flower, Amaranthus caudatlus.

Height: from 1 to 2m.

Foliage: light to mid-green or variegated, soft, edible.

Climate: grows equally well in cool, temperate, warm temperate and sub-tropical areas—quite adaptable.

Soil: prefers rich, well-drained loam but will grow in poor or dry soils.

Position: full sun for at least 5 hours daily. Needs protection from strong winds.

Flowering and fruiting: long crimson tassels of tiny flowers, each forming a small seed that can be used as a grain.

Feeding: add a controlled-release fertiliser before planting.

Watering: regular watering; keep soil moist but not wet.

Appearance and characteristics of amaranth

Amaranth is a medium to tall annual that usually grows to around 1 to 1.5m high, though it can reach 2m. It generally has red stems, and leaves that range from light to dark green—the more shade a plant receives, the darker its leaves will be. Some varieties have variegated or deep red/purple leaves. They are usually soft and oval shaped, and the veins may be prominent. As the growing season progresses, plants form a pink-tinged taproot.

Amaranth produces dense spikes (tassels) of tiny flowers. The bright, showy colour is the bracts (“leaves” surrounding the flowers)—the flowers themselves are quite inconspicuous. Each amaranth tassel is capable of producing hundreds of thousands of tiny seeds, each in its own capsule.

Dark pink amaranthus flowers.

Uses for amaranth

Amaranth leaves can be eaten fresh or cooked like spinach. Newer leaves are preferred, as they are more tender. The seeds have a nutty flavour. They can be ground and mixed with other grains into a flour, popped like popcorn or soaked and cooked as a porridge substitute. Amaranth is also grown as a micro green.

How to plant and grow amaranth

Amaranth seed is extremely small and can be difficult to handle, but seeds germinate well when sown into trays of seed-raising mix in late winter or early spring. When the seedlings are large enough to handle, transfer them to fresh trays until it’s time to plant them in the garden. Do this in mid-spring, when the soil has warmed.

Alternatively, seeds can be direct-sown in the location where plants will grow and flower. Thin seedlings out to recommended spacings as they grow, transplanting the “extras” into any gaps where seeds have failed.

Punnets or cell packs of amaranth seedlings are usually available from retailers in spring in a range of flower and leaf colours.

Amaranth prefers a rich loam that drains well. Add plenty of compost and weathered manure during soil preparation, and include a six-month controlled-release fertiliser for flowering plants. Amaranth is tolerant of poorer, drier soils, but plants may not be as large and showy.

Plants grow to 1m or more in height, and may have a similar spread, so space them about 45cm apart in rows about 60cm apart. Plant towards the back of the bed and add lower-growing summer annuals in front to create a colourful flowering border. As plants develop, pinch out the growing tips of shoots to encourage bushiness—the more stems there are on each plant, the more flowers you’ll have.

Caring for amaranth

Once established, amaranth is reasonably drought-tolerant, but for best results, water at least once a week during hot dry weather.

The six-month formulation fertiliser added during soil preparation should provide enough nutrients for amaranth to flower and set seed. Give it an extra boost with applications of water-soluble or liquid fertiliser every three or four weeks if necessary.

Diseases and pests

Amaranth is pretty hardy and doesn’t seem to suffer from diseases, but keep an eye out for mildews when the weather is warm and humid. Good air circulation around and between plants will keep fungal diseases at bay.

When seedlings are small, watch for slugs and snails—use baits in a trap if necessary.

Sap-sucking aphids can be problematic in some areas and seasons. An insecticidal soap or pyrethrum applied as directed will control these.

When and how to harvest amaranth seeds

Amaranth seeds can be harvested as soon as they start falling off, about three months after planting.

You can harvest the seeds directly from the tassel by rubbing them over a bucket with your hands. This will require several harvests as the seeds ripen.

Alternatively, you can also cut the plant or tassel and dry it, before collecting the seeds. Make sure the seeds are completely dry before storing them, otherwise they will go mouldy in the container.

If you like this then try

Chillies: edible and ornamental vegetable producing edible chillies ranging in heat from mild to extreme.

Ginger: rhizomatous plant that produces edible ginger as well as attractive foliage and flowers.

Tansy: hardy tall herb useful in the garden to deter insects from fruit trees.

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