In the natural world, plants are often great travelers. Their seeds are carried from one region to the next by the movement of winds and tides, or by clinging to animals’ fur, and to the soles of our shoes.
They also migrate through history, borne by the winds and tides of fashion. Take, for example, the grain amaranths that once had godlike status in their native Central and South America, then almost vanished from the Earth. These nourishing mainstay crops, related to beets, spinach and pigweed, were grown for their tiny seeds, which were ground into flour. At times they were popped like popcorn, glued together with cane sugar or — by some accounts — human blood, and shaped into totem figures to be broken and eaten during Pre-Columbian ceremonies. The Spanish conquistadores outlawed these idolatrous rites (too pagan or too much like the Eucharist?), banned amaranth’s cultivation and supplanted it with grass grains such as wheat.
Fortunately for the world, amaranth did survive — not only in the Americas but also in other tropical regions — to emerge again in recent times as a superfood, a darling of the health food trade. Amaranth is now deified for its protein content (higher than that of any grain), a calcium level surpassing that of spinach, and a trove of key amino acids such as lysine. People are eating it as cereal, sprouting it, making cookies from it, thickening soups with it, baking it into gluten-free bread (though it must be combined with wheat for yeast breads) and feeding it to birds.
Best yet, it is a grain crop that home gardeners can easily grow. You sow it after danger of frost, about ½-inch deep, in a finely textured, moistened seedbed — the kind you’d prepare for carrots. The plants then thrive in summer’s heat, growing 6 feet tall and more, topped with striking plumes in shades of red, purple, rust or green. In fall, when the multitudes of seeds in these plumes start to dry and shatter, you can beat them against a screen to sift them out, then winnow them by tossing them gently on a windy day, or in front of a fan. Few catalogs carry grain amaranth, but several can be had from Seeds of Change (seedsofchange.com) and Fedco Seeds (fedcoseeds.com).
Even less well known is vegetable amaranth, grown for its mild-tasting, spinach-like leaves. These are harvested while young, either as a salad crop or as a cooking green. Unlike spinach, it thrives in heat, making it an excellent green to carry you through the dog days of summer when other greens are bolting. Picked very small, certain red-leaved forms are a popular ingredient in mesclun mixtures.
In many cases the same species will produce both edible greens and edible seeds, but it is generally Amaranthus cruentus and A. hypochondriacus that are grown for grain and A. tricolor that yields tasty foliage. Kitazawa Seeds (kitazawaseed.com) has five different varieties of the kind called Chinese spinach, with variously shaped leaves in shades of green or green-and-red.
But the amaranth story doesn’t end there. While its fortunes were rising and falling as an edible crop, floriculture was leading it down an equally mysterious path. Since the plant tends naturally toward flamboyant coloration in its leaves, and eccentric shapes and colors in its seedheads, it was only natural for it to be bred as an ornamental. The Victorians popularized cultivars of A. caudatus, which tends to produce either fat, upright flower spikes or very long, fuzzy tassels. The best known is Love-lies-bleeding, whose blossoms drape themselves over the bushy green foliage in long crimson ropes. I don’t know where the name comes from, though its appearance could suggest a relationship in which one has poured one’s guts out, only to have it all come crashing down to a messy, melodramatic end.
Equally riotous are the varieties of A. tricolor such as Joseph’s Coat, Summer Poinsettia and Molten Fire, which produce floral explosions in shades of crimson, orange, scarlet, yellow and green. All fell out of favor in post-Victorian times, only to stage a comeback in the last decade or so. They can now be seen in the borders of formerly timid gardeners who once would never grow a yellow flower, or steal the thunder from blinking lights and stop signs in a traffic island near you.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.”