Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter

from the October 23, 2016 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regensis north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

Red Amaranth, AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, is planted here and there at the rancho. Sometimes it's also called Blood Amaranth, Purple Amaranth, Prince's Feather, and Mexican Grain Amaranth. It's late in the season for Red Amaranth, so our plants are fully grown, but most of their leaves have withered away, and most of the flowering is past, so our plants look a little scraggly. Still, with their bright red color against the usual lush green backdrop, they're a conspicuous presence, as you can see below:


In the nearby village of Santa Rita, where I get the bicycle fixed, some folks grow Red Amaranth as ornamental bushes. There you can see that when they're regularly watered and cared for they can look impressive, as shown below:


A closer look at the colorful head of dense spikes and panicles, and its long-petioled, simple, smooth-margined leaves, is shown below:

Red Amaranth, AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, flowering head

Already the pistils of most flowers have matured into utricle-type fruits, an utricle being a bladdery, one-seeded fruit. Most of the bladders already have split open, releasing their single, tiny, shiny-black seeds, but if you look closely you can find seeds ready to fall from their open bladders. One is shown below -- that's the top of my thumbnail across the picture's bottom giving an idea how small the seed is:

Red Amaranth, AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, seed in fruit

Even this late in the season, if you shake a head over your open palm, several seeds fall out, as shown below:

Red Amaranth, AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, seeds

Here at the rancho, fruiting heads of Red Amaranth are cut and hung upside-down in the chicken yard, so the hens can walk up and peck seeds out -- which they do with great relish. In fact, archaeological evidence shows that Red Amaranth was eaten by people in Mexico and Central America at least as far back as 6000 years ago -- both leaves and seeds being consumed.

Seeing how tiny the seeds are, you wonder that anyone would bother to eat them. However, the big flowering heads hold thousands of flowers, so at the peak of fruiting a good handful of seeds can be collected from each plant. Traditionally the seeds have been ground into flour, cooked into a kind of porridge, and popped like popcorn. Nowadays native people no longer gather the seeds, but the plant's leaves can be eaten like spinach. Also, the popped seeds now are used commercially to make the popular Mexican candy called alegría, an example of which is shown at http://www.backyardnature.net/m/food/alegria.jpg

Often the seeds are sold in health food stores, both for adding to dishes, and for sprouting. Amaranth seeds are present in generous amounts in my daily-eaten Mexican-made granola. Below, you can see a couple of black amaranth seeds sticking to a slice of banana in my breakfast bowl:

Red Amaranth, AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, seeds in granola

In the lower, right quarter of that picture, notice the many white items just a little larger than the black amaranth seeds. I think that those are popped amaranth seeds, or maybe that's how the black one look once they're cooked. I read that wild Red Amaranth seeds are black, while in the domesticated form they're white.

I've collected my own handful of seeds from the heads shown in these pictures, and have sowed them in the garden, where I hope that later I can collect the leaves for cooking -- if the leafcutter ants permit.

from the September 14, 2007 Newsletter issued from Sierra Gorda Biosphere Reserer, Jalpan, Querétaro, MÉXICO

Across from a store where sometimes I buy my bananas there's a cornfield, a view into which you can see below:

AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, Prince's Feather, Quelite

Notice that the corn is much taller than what is grown in fields up north. I held the camera about five feet above the ground and you can see how the corn towers above the lens. At the picture's lower left the large, roundish leaves belong to squash plants. If you look closely below the squash leaves you can see trifoliate blades of bean vines. The purplish plants among the corn stalks are AMARANTHUS CRUENTUS, often known in English as Prince's Feather, while people around here call it Quelite. Quelite is a general name used for several similar potherbs. Amaranthus is the amaranth genus.

Before the corn got so tall, when the Quelite was knee-high with a more compact inflorescence and with leaves more succulent and closer together, it was perfect for being picked and cooked just as northerners cook wild poke or turnip and spinach greens.

Thus Quelite is growing among the corn not as a weed but as part of a sophisticated, traditional food-growing system. Don't forget that the bean-vine's roots bear nodules with mycorrhiza, which produce nitrogen for the other plants. This shaggy-looking garden space is very efficiently providing four nutritious and tasty food items.

The other day I visited a hut in the mountains where the señora was busily stripping Quelite leaves from purple stalks her little boy had brought home, surely from a cornfield like this. Back on the farm in Kentucky we had Amaranthus hybridus -- thus a member of the same genus as Quilite -- growing weedily in our garden and around the barn, and it also could have provided us with nutritious greens. However, we called it Pigweed and would have laughed, if not felt insulted, if someone had suggested eating it.

from the December 18, 2016 Newsletter issued from Rancho Regenesis in the woods near Ek Balam Ruins north of Valladolid, Yucatán, MÉXICO

Nowadays I surprise the Rancho's Maya workers not only by eating amaranth leaves, but also for the way I'm growing the plant. Below, you can see one corner of my Red Amaranth plant bed:

amaranth grown for its leaves

A close-up showing the leaves' pretty undersides is shown below:

edible amaranth leaves

What the Maya find inexplicable is that I've sown the seeds so thickly. However, for years I've sown lettuce, mustard greens and turnip greens the same way. As soon as the crammed-together seedlings pop up, I begin harvesting and eating them -- thinning them out as I go. As the plants grow larger they find themselves separated from one another by ever greater spaces, yet always forming a dense but not-to-dense cover. Eventually the bed in our pictures will hold only half a dozen or so seven-ft-tall (2m) bushes, which will produce prodigious numbers of seeds.

On the InnovateUS.Net web page entitled "The 12 Health Benefits of Eating Amaranth Leaves" I read that amaranth leaves are "Packed with antioxidants, protein, vitamins, calcium, carbohydrates, iron and minerals..." with numerous health benefits. Amaranth leaves were part of the staple diet of the ancient Aztecs, Mayans and Incas.

Also at the NutritionData.Self.Com website, nutrition charts for amaranth leaves indicate that one cup of raw amaranth leaves (28g), supplies about the following in terms of a body's minimum daily requirement:

Vitamin K.......399%
Vitamin C....... 20%
Vitamin A....... 16%
Manganese....... 12%

The leaves are composed of 26% protein, which is amazingly high for a green leaf.

The NutritionData.Self.Com page's general review of raw amaranth leaves describes it as low in saturated sat, and "... a good source of Niacin, and a very good source of Protein, Vitamin A, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, Riboflavin, Vitamin B6, Folate, Calcium, Iron, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Potassium, Zinc, Copper and Manganese."