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What is Amaranthus?

By Terrie Brockmann
Updated May 16, 2024
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Amaranthus, which are short-lived herbs of the amaranthaceae family, generally are native to tropical and mild climates in almost all parts of the world. The genus of Amaranthus contains more than 50 species, including pigweed, tassel flower, and Joseph's coat. Although Amaranthus is primarily an ornamental plant, the Incas and Aztecs used the amaranth plant as a food, and in many regions people still do so.

Many species provide food as leaf vegetables, cereals, and flours, and most are highly nutritious. In many countries, people eat the leaves as greens, use the plant as an herb for flavoring, and eat the grains. Depending on the cultivar, the seeds may contain up to 20 percent protein, making them valuable for vegetarians. Many American health food stores carry amaranth flour and cereal. A popular treat called alegra is toasted amaranth grains mixed with honey or molasses.

The flowers are small and have perianth and bracts instead of petals, which range in color from white or greenish white to brownish red or red in color, varying by the cultivar. Most species have spikes or heads of long-lasting blooms. Depending on the species and cultivar, the flower groups may be upright or drooping panicles, which are loose branching pyramid-shaped flower clusters. The leaves often are colorfully mottled. Joseph's Coat, A. tricolor, usually has green, yellow, and scarlet splotched leaves that are three to six inches (about eight to 15 cm) long and two to four inches (about five to 10 cm) wide.

Often gardeners use Amaranthus in landscaping or container plantings. Most find that poor soil gives more colorful foliage. Some of the species that gardeners usually plant are the love-lies-bleeding or tassel flower, fire amaranthus, and fountain plant. A. hybridus is a common weed in most places, but a cultivar of it called hypochondriacus, or prince's feather, often is a fine garden specimen. Other plants in the Amaranthus family are weeds, notably pigweed and tumbleweed.

At least nine of the pigweed species have multiplied aggressively since the 1990s. Experts believe the rapid spread of these species is at least in part owing to new farming techniques, including reduced or no tillage, less herbicidal use, and herbicidal-resistance species. A new strain of the Palmer amaranth, Amaranthus palmeri, often is glyphosate resistant, and the most common herbicides do not kill it. Cotton and soybean growers generally are most at risk, although all farmers in temperate regions typically need to battle this weed. In field tests, soybean yields were reduced 17 to 68 percent because of the palmer amaranth infestation.

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Discussion Comments
By brockmann — On May 21, 2011

@Bagley79: It is great to hear from someone who loves the amaranthus. I haven't tried it yet. I have too many different plants in my small yard! I can imagine how the celosia and the amaranthus look together. The celosia probably is seeding itself like the little Johnny-Jump-Ups do.

It is interesting that a variety of the celosia -- Celosia argentea var. argentea is called "Lagos spinach" and is considered a leaf vegetable. People generally use it in soups and stews. Happy gardening!

By brockmann — On May 21, 2011

@Sunshine: Many useful plants have relatives that are weeds. The toxic plant, Nightshade, has a few relatives that we eat almost daily, including the tomato and the potato!

Good luck with your Amaranthus crop. Please write and let us know how it turned out.

By brockmann — On May 19, 2011

Julies, sorry to hear that something attacked your lovely plants. Contact your local nurseries or county agent (USA) to learn how you can deter the culprit. Sometimes there is a scent that you can spread near tasty plants that repulses animals.

Good luck!

By bagley79 — On May 18, 2011

One of my favorite flower combinations is amaranthus and celosia. I love to plant different colors of celosia under the amaranthus for a spectacular display of color. Even though Celosia is an annual, mine come back every year and also will spread.

It takes them a while to germinate in the spring, so often I think they are not going to come back, but if I don't turn over the soil, they always do. They will usually bloom in late summer when many things are past their peak, so I always look forward to their colorful blooms.

By sunshined — On May 18, 2011

I love amaranthus not only for its unique look and color, but am also fascinated that it is used as a type of grain. I am interested in growing some to see if you can harvest it for that purpose. I plan to go online and find some amaranth recipes to see what all you can use it for that is edible.

It is also interesting that other members of this family are weeds. I do know that once it is established it can take over an area very quickly and become a nuisance if not kept under control.

By julies — On May 18, 2011

I fell in love with Amaranthus when I visited a friends garden. I wondered what those tall, dark pink cascading flowers were. I bought a package of amaranthus seeds at the store and was excited because they look very easy to grow.

I had the perfect spot, and knew they would get tall and would want to stake them eventually. It did not take long for them to germinate and they began to grow quickly. I still don't know if it was deer or rabbits, but every time they would get so big and then something would dig them up.

I really want to grow some, but haven't decided if I am going to try again this year or not.

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