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Young amaranth greens, with one picture showing the distinct chevon present on some amaranth species, an the picture on the right showing the leaves of Palmer's amaranth, Amaranthus palmeri.

The Staple Grain of the Aztecs

edible wild plants sonoran desert plants Dec 08, 2023

   Amaranth is one of the best tasting and most common edible plants in Southern Arizona. Historically its seeds were an important staple crop of the Aztecs, and in times past the plant was considered one of the top two favorite greens of the Pima(the other being purslane). Nowadays amaranth seeds can be found in health food stores and is even considered a superfood by some, but most people don’t know that it’s also a common weed in agricultural fields and vacant lots across the whole country!

   Also known as pigweed, amaranth is a very common group of plants with at least one species represented in every state in the lower 48. The seeds are high in protein, and the leaves are high in vitamins and nutrients like vitamin C, beta carotene, niacin, riboflavin, calcium, and iron.

   Both seeds and greens of numerous species have been used throughout history as important vegetables and staple foods, so in this article we’re going to look at how to identify and use them!   


   Like most edible weeds, amaranth greens can be tricky for beginners to identify when they’re in their young and tender stage(which is when they’re the best for eating), but they become more distinct as they start to flower and put out seeds.

   Take a look at the picture above. You’ll notice the light colored chevron(V-shaped) mark on the plant on the left. This is a great ID feature when it’s present, but oftentimes this feature is totally absent, so you’ll need to look closely at the vein pattern and other features of the young plants to make a positive identification.

Amaranth leaf showing the shiny underside.

   One of the more distinct features of the leaves is that they have variably lengthed stems(see picture below). Most plants have leaves with stems that are all generally the same size, but amaranth leaf stems range from short to long. Another feature of the leaves is that they are often silvery or shiny on the underside, but this feature is also shared by one of amaranth's “lookalikes”, the spiderlings (although spiderlings aren’t particularly toxic to my knowledge).

Spiderling leaves on the left, amaranth leaves on the right. Notice how the stems of amaranth all have different lengths.

   Amaranth usually has reddish stems, especially at the “leaf axils”(where the leaf meets the stem), stem junctions, and at the base of the main stem where it meets the ground. As the plant matures the whole stem typically turns red, until at full maturity virtually the whole plant often is completely red.

   Once amaranth flowers identification becomes much more straightforward. The flowers themselves are tiny, green, and lack petals, but they’re arranged in distinct “spikes” that appear as long green fingers.

Green flower spikes of amaranth.

   Many amaranth flowers are surrounded by spiny bracts that get hard and prickly as they dry. They produce tiny, black seeds by the thousands.

Mature seed spike.

   Lastly, although there are some sprawling species of amaranth that crawl along the ground like mat amaranth, aka prostrate pigweed(Amaranthus blitoides), most species grow straight and tall and can reach heights upwards of 10 feet. Once dried, amaranth stalks (I call them skeletons) can stay standing for over a year. Once you learn them, they are easily recognizable at highway speeds, and are a common sight in farmland areas. The dried stalks of amaranth indicate where to look for the greens in the spring and seeds in the fall(just make sure you harvest them from wholesome areas that haven’t been sprayed with chemicals).

Two amaranth stalks. The red one on the left is this year's stalk with thousands of seeds almost ready for harvest. The stalk on the right is last year's dried stalk. Both indicate where to look for amaranth greens the following spring.

Edible Uses

   Amaranth has two edible parts, the leaves and the seeds. The leaves were(and are) considered a top green by the Pima, and I consider them one of the better wild leafy greens available in North America. They come out in the spring and early summer and can be harvested until they start to get mature, after which time they are still edible, but not choice. They can be eaten raw or cooked, and they can also be dried on the counter and added to soups, stews, or smoothies.

   The seeds of amaranth were an important staple food in times past. They may be small, but they’re produced by the thousands, so it’s not too difficult to harvest a decent supply in a relatively short amount of time.

   The seeds are ready around October or November. It’s best to wait until the seed spikes are fully dry, then put on gloves and strip them off by hand. Euell Gibbons, author of the classic book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, recommended clipping the seed spikes off whole, then wrapping them in a tarp and stomping them to loosen the seeds.

   After harvesting, they need to be winnowed to separate the dry chaff from the seeds. This can be done by placing them in a shallow bowl and gently blowing away the chaff, or if you have a larger amount you can use a box fan to blow the chaff away(or just wait for a windy day and let the wind winnow the chaff away).

   Stand in front of the fan and slowly pour a bucket of the seeds into another bucket below. The fan will blow away the chaff, while the heavier seeds will fall into the bucket.

   The seeds can then be toasted in a pan on medium-low heat, and either boiled, or ground up into flour with a coffee grinder and added to bread or other foods. I hope this article gives you the confidence to identify the plant and start experimenting with its hundreds of possible uses and combinations! Thanks for reading!