Amaranth, Amaranthus caudatus
As a multitasking fiend, I always appreciate a plant that can do many things. One fine example is amaranth. Not only is it a leaf vegetable, but it’s also a grain and a cut flower. (It’s the trailing tassle-shaped flower, commonly known as Love-Lies-Bleeding, that you are most likely familiar with.) So, if you’re looking for an easy to sow and grow flower that checks many boxes, please read on.
With more than 70 Amaranth species (and most considered weeds), only two handfuls are cultivated for either eating or ornamental reasons. If you are looking for the seeds to eat (note: amaranth seed is one of the most complete proteins available from a plant) and long-lasting cut flowers, look no further than Amaranthus caudatus. If, however, you are looking for a unique spinach substitute, consider instead the less bitter Amaranthus tricolor or viridis.
Amaranth historically was very important for the Mayans, Aztecs, and the Incas as a sacred grain source, and then later popular in Victorian English gardens for ornamental purposes. Fast-growing, trouble-free, with long-lasting blooms and nutritious seeds, you can see why this plant has staying power. However, because amaranth grows so quickly, today you don’t readily find the larger varieties as starts in nurseries because the plants quickly outgrow their containers. This just means that you should search out seeds to sow yourself.
Begin by sowing amaranth seeds indoors (four to six weeks before the last frost), or sow directly outdoors in the spring after the last frost and the soil has warmed a bit. (Pro tip: because the seeds are so tiny and fine, sprinkle them thinly over a prepared area, barely covering the seed with soil, then once seedlings have their first true leaves, thin to about 18″ inches apart.) You will find your plant quickly producing fuzzy plumes that will cascade down like a colorful waterfall starting in the summer and continuing through the fall. You should harvest for fresh bouquets when at least three-fourths of the flowers are open. For dried flowers, harvest when seeds set and flowers firm up, and place the stems in a dry, tall container to preserve the draping effect.
Now, if you’re looking to harvest the edible seeds, let the plant fully bloom and then watch for drying and slight browning of flowers. At this time, cut off the flowering stem and place it in a paper bag where it can finish drying. Once dry, the flowers must be threshed (beaten) while still in the bag or over a cloth. Use water or wind to separate the grain from the chaff. Grind the seeds into flour or cook the grain in liquid.
If you are a bird-lover, consider leaving your flowers to dry on the plant so the birds can feast in the fall. The frost will definitely take your plant down, but the seeds will still be appreciated.
- Use the bold, bright plumes fresh or dried for arrangements.
- Perfect when added to containers, paired with marigolds and salvias.
- Plant in a cutting garden next to zinnias and dahlias or add to a cottage garden for a dramatic accent.
- Attracts bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Plus birds love to snack on the seeds.
- All parts are edible.
Keep It Alive
- Like most vegetable and cut flower crops, this annual plant needs at least five hours of sun.
- Plant in average soil but prefers fertile, well-draining soil.
- Mostly drought tolerant once established. Water deeply and infrequently.
- Grows from three to eight feet tall, depending on the variety. Space plants two feet apart.
- Generally disease free.
For more on amaranth, see:
- Recipe: Amaranth Banana Bread, Flowers Optional
- Weeds You Can Eat: Wild Amaranth
- Amaranth: The New Superfood