The amaranth plant produces brightly colored flowers from which seed is harvested. Though technically not a grain, the nutritional value and preparation methods are similar to those of grains such as wheat or rye. Amaranth seed, though, does not contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley grains.
The word amaranth means "never fading" or "never ending." The plant is originally native to South America and was a staple in the Aztec diet. The Aztecs also used the amaranth plant as a part of their ceremonies of human sacrifice.
The Spanish conquistadors, who invaded in the mid-1500s, were appalled by the concept of human sacrifice and reasoned that if they quashed the cultivation of amaranth, the human sacrifices would cease.
The amaranth plant continued to be cultivated in remote areas, though, and so escaped extinction. Today, it has been adapted to cultivation throughout the tropical regions and as far north as the state of Colorado.
Amaranth plants grow as tall as 7 feet. The leaves are elongated, and their green is a mid-range tone that pales in comparison with the brilliant colors of the flowerings. The flowers, or seed heads, grow in groupings and hang strandlike from the stems of the plant.
The seed of the amaranth plant may be cooked as a cereal or ground into flour. Being a gluten-free seed, and comparable to grain in nutritional values, amaranth flour and cereals made from amaranth seed are among gluten-free products on the market today.
The young leaves of the amaranth plant may be used as salad greens, while more mature leaves may be cooked, much like spinach and other leafy greens. Young stems cut from the plant resemble asparagus in taste when steamed.
The amaranth plant has adapted to soils and climates outside of South America. Easily grown in well-drained soil and exposure to full sun, one amaranth plant may provide up to 2 oz. seed. The seed is harvested by manually shaking the strands of flowers once they begin to show signs of drying out. The seeds are small, approximately 1/32 of an inch in size, and it takes several thousand seeds to make an ounce.
The seeds, though, contain high concentrations of protein, vitamins B and E, calcium and iron, and are easily digestible, making them a good food for young children and those with sensitivities to gluten and grains.
Amaranth seed or flour as a product may be costly. It is not readily available in supermarkets and may be found only in specialty stores and health-food outlets.
As a garden or landscape plant, the amaranth may contribute to the home's food supply, but harvesting the seed is time consuming, and the yield from a few plants may not be sufficient to justify the work.