plant profile: amaranth

2013/06/18 deej 0

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), also known as love-lies-bleeding or pigweed, is reasonably common in flower beds and nurseries around Perth. It’s an impressive looking plant, with tall spires of long lasting pink, purple, or orange flowers and often attractively variegated red and green leaves. Amaranth species prefer a tropical climate, but many species are frost tolerant, and they’re so hardy that they’re considered a weed in many places. I saw a few growing wild in the middle of the city this morning.

Almost every part of the plant is edible. The seeds were a staple food of the native people of Mesoamerica, until its cultivation was banned by the conquistadores. The seeds have a mild, nutty, malty flavour, and are high in minerals such as iron, magnesium, phosphorus, copper and manganese as well as offering a complete protein (containing all essential amino acids for human health).

They can be cooked like rice, either with rice or other grains, or alone; cooked on their own they cook up to a stickier consistency than rice or quinoa do, more like polenta. The seeds can also be cooked into a porridge, or used to add protein andinterest to stews or soups. They can be parched and milled into a gluten free flour, or popped like popcorn. Popped amaranth seeds mixed with honey make a very tasty breakfast cereal. Amaranth seeds can also be sprouted, in the same way as alfalfa, wheat, or other seeds.

The leaves, young stems and shoots can be cooked like spinach. They soften up readily, requiring only a few minutes cooking, which helps avoid excessive nutrient loss. The boiled leaves may be rubbed through a fine sieve and served as a puree. Young shoots and tender young leaves can also be eaten raw, as a salad vagetable.


Generally different species are grown primarily for the seeds (Amaranthus caudatus, Amaranthus cruentus, and Amaranthus hypochondriacus) and for the leaves (Amaranthus tricolor, Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus blitum, Amaranthus dubius), but both the seeds and leaves of all amaranths are equally edible and nutritious. Amaranths grown principally for vegetable use have better tasting leaves then the grain types.

Amaranths are mostly annuals or short-lived perennials, grown from seed or seedlings planted in late winter or spring (after frosts have passed). As they are tall, soft plants they need protection from strong winds. They use the C4 photosynthesis pathway, which means that they thrive in areas of high light intensity and heat, and can survive drought conditions better than many plants. With supplemental water, the yield of grain amaranth is comparable to rice or maize. Seeds can be harvested by hand or mechanically; leaves are harvested by hand.


What amaranth needs:

  • Water – Amaranth survives drought conditions, and will grow happily with 200 – 3000 mm of rainfall, or supplemental water. Leaf amaranths require more water than grain types.


  • Sunlight – Amaranth thrives in strong sunlight and high temperatures – it will grow and thrive at 30 – 35 degrees celsius. The ground should be 18 degrees Celsius or more before seeds are planted to ensure good germination.


  • Soil – Although amaranth prefers a rich soil, it will grow in virtually any well drained location short of pure beach sand. Clay soils can inhibit germination, as the young amaranth seedlings are quite delicate and may not be able to push through a clay crust on the soil.


  • Space – Amaranth comes in all sizes, shapes and colours. Commercially, optimum grain yields have been obtained at around 45 plants per square m.



What amaranth has to offer:

  • Edible seeds (which, when cooked, can also be fed to poultry & fish).


  • Edible leaves (which can also be used for animal fodder).


  • Attractive, hardy ornamental plant for landscaping.


  • New amaranth plants.



Further info:
Amaranth grain & vegetable Types
Alternative Field Crops Manual: Amaranth
Jefferson Institute: Amaranth
National Academies Press: Lost Crops of Africa: Amaranth
Ripe organics: Amaranth
Strengthening food security with grain amaranth
Tropical Permaculture: Amaranth
Harvesting Amaranth grain – Is It Worth it?


Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

species diversity and food

2013/06/06 deej 0

This morning as I was cutting up a persimmon, one of my workmates came over and, apologising for asking a stupid sounding question, asked what it was that I was cutting up. I don’t think it’s a stupid question at all – if you don’t know what something is, trying to find out is admirable. But it made me think about why someone wouldn’t recognise a persimmon (not just not know what it was called or where it came from, but have literally never seen one before).

I know about persimmons because I spent a year in South Korea teaching English when I finished university, and they’re often included on fruit platters there as well as being widely available in supermarkets and local grocery stores. They’re a well-known fruit in east Asia, which is where the persimmon tree is from. For those who might be curious, a persimmon (a non-astringent Fuyu type persimmon – the astringent ones are slightly different) is crunchy like a firm nectarine, with a flavour somewhere between a sweet apple, a peach, and rock melon (cantaloupe), with a hint of a cinnamon. They’re delicious. There’s no core, and generally no seeds, and you can eat the skin or peel them.

There are so many domesticated plant and animal species which we use for food, and yet the average diet of the average person in an industrialised country is very limited. I’m unusual in the variety of foods I eat, and I don’t have access to even a quarter of the edible things I’ve read about.

I really feel that we need to start branching out in our eating habits. I know that a lot of people have the Crocodile Dundee opinion (said of roast goanna: “tastes like shit, but you can live on it”) of unusual foods or foods that have been popular with native peoples and are not (yet) mainstream – but many if not most of those foods are valuable sources of nutrients, and tasty. Look at quinoa; eaten for centuries by the people of South and Central America, relegated to “poverty food” because of its association with the native culture after European colonisation, and now it’s a high value health food and increasingly looks like one of the best staple foods we have available to us, with more protein and minerals than rice or wheat.

How much would the world change if we made better use of our domesticated species? We domesticated them for a reason, after all.

Images sourced from Wikimedia Commons:

miscellany – end of May 2013

2013/06/04 deej 0

It’s the end of May already – and past the end, by now. This year is going so fast.

So, some updates: The house planning & building is going, although ever so slowly. We’ve almost finished sorting out a small mortgage extension to cover getting the first water tank in, the second big shed up, and the full engineering plans drawn up. It may sound like an odd selection of things to prioritise, but those are the things we can get money for from the bank without having a builder, and getting a builder is still proving tricky.

The water tank will be invaluable. We meant to get it in last winter before the rains started, so it’s a full year and a few months late, but with luck we’ll get something in in time to catch some rain this winter. With luck there will be some more rain this winter. I’ve had to abandon – or at least put on hold for now – any hope of a stainless steel tank. Just too expensive to ship (truck) over from NSW. So the plan is to go with unlined concrete, since concrete is a well-understood and reliably non-toxic building material (assuming you don’t put toxic fillers in the mix, I know) even if it isn’t the most environmentally friendly option with its high embodied energy and non-recyclability.

The shed will eventually be the main workshop for woodwork and large-scale projects (like building the Lifetrac Open Source Ecology DIY tractor). In the shorter term, it will be used for a bedroom. Although the initial kitchen/living room pod of our distributed house, which (along with the bathroom & toilet) will be the first part to be built, is designed to function as an independent cottage, I didn’t design in anything like enough storage space for the wardrobes of two urban professional who also like to dress up in steampunk, and have enough casual farm clothes to handle camping and farm maintenance. In short, we have too many clothes for the space we’ll have, and they’re not things we can easily do without while maintaining our current jobs and social lives. Thus, the shed will fill that gap until we get the bedroom pod built with it’s wardrobe space.

Meanwhile, we’re getting chickens! We’ve started building a little chicken coop in the back yard, and we have permission from the owner to get a couple’ve chooks as long as we keep them contained and clean so we don’t attract rats. This will not be a problem; I can’t stand stinky, inefficient livestock operations and rats are just right out. Except tame, friendly domestic rats, which are ok for those who want them. The frame should be done this week, and we can get paint for it and the wire to enclose the run on the weekend. So, maybe another 2 weeks and then we can go chicken shopping at Comp’s Poultry for a couple’ve heritage breed chooks. I’m thinking we’ll get one naked neck and one wyandotte, and see how they go. This can be an initial experiment to see which breed(s) we end up keeping once we have a house and are moved up to Gallifrey full time.

I’m also signing up – well, applying – to do a postgrad course in dryland agriculture. Don’t know yet if I’ll be accepted, but there’s a good chance. I have a meeting set up tomorrow afternoon to fill in all the paperwork and look at my potential timetable with the head of school. Wish me luck 🙂