A welcome impostor, amaranth is actually not a cereal grain by definition. It belongs to another plant family entirely. But, because its nutritional composition is so similar, it is often included with cereal grains.
These tall plants get their name from a Greek word that means “the never-fading” or “one that does not wither.” Our friend, amaranth, is true to its name. Its bright gold, purple, and red leaves retain their brilliance even after harvest and drying. Even the leaves can be aesthetically exciting in certain varieties – from deep red to light green with purple veins. The grain itself is tiny (About the size of the eye of a needle) and is a pale cream color, but there are normally a few rogue black grains mixed in.
As far as growing goes, amaranth prefers higher elevations but can be grown in many elevations with the proper soil. It has some agricultural advantages. First, if there is enough water to get the crop established, it can be grown with very little water. It can generate seeds with up to 40 days of no rain. It is drought-tolerant and thrives in areas with a lot of sun. Second, early frost isn’t a problem. It’s planted late and autumn frost is actually necessary because it dries the seed, preparing it to be harvested.
Amaranth has quite a dramatic history. It was first cultivated about 6,000-8,000 years ago in South and Central America. It was a staple food for many pre-Columbian civilizations, such as the Aztecs. Amaranth was not just a food staple for the Aztecs, but it also played a big part in their worship. They built statues of their deity using amaranth grain and honey. These statues were worshipped, broken, and distributed for eating. This practice is the primary reason amaranth did not survive as a staple.
When the Spanish arrived with Cortez, as part of their efforts to force Christianity on the pagan natives, they outlawed the grain. Amaranth fields were burned and cultivators were punished. Lucky for us, they were unable to completely destroy the grain. In a few remote areas, small amounts of amaranth survived.
For awhile it was primarily used to make a traditional sweet called alegria which was mady by popping the amaranth and combining it with some kind of sticky sweetener like honey or sugar and molasses.
Fortunately for us, this historic grain flew under the radar until the 1970s when it was introduced into the United States. An article by the George Mateljan Foundation explained the discovery this way, “Amaranth has always had a place near and dear to my heart. Years ago, I heard about amaranth, the grain that had once been a staple in the diets of pre-Columbian Aztecs. I had learned that with the arrival of Cortez and the Spanish conquistadors, all crops of amaranth were burned, its use was forbidden, and its possession was cause for severe punishment. I set out to find this ‘lost’ grain, to hopefully discover this treasure that lay at the heart of this incredibly powerful people. After 300 years of it being in obscurity, I rediscovered amaranth in Mexico where I was honored to share it on ceremonial days with the descendants of the Aztecs, who believed that amaranth provided them with supernatural power. Therefore, it is not surprising to me when people say they are not familiar with amaranth as it was only in the 1970s that I reintroduced this ancient grain to the United States.”
And we are thankful for that! Today, amaranth is grown in a few locations in the United States, and we are able to enjoy this nutritious grain despite its rough past!