Love-Lies-Bleeding

Family: Amaranthaceae (Amaranth family)
Genus: Amaranthus
Species: caudatus

Few common names are as apt as the one given to Amaranthus caudatus. You may not remember its Latin moniker—but once you see this plant, you’ll never forget that it’s widely known as Love-Lies-Bleeding. As an ornamental, A. caudatus is something of a novelty. For me it conjures up images of gardens the Addams family might favor or plantings designed by Edward Gorey—and songs of love involving silver daggers. Just a trace on the creepy side of melodramatic. This image is tempered somewhat by A. caudatus ‘Viridis’, a cultivar offering pale green tassels instead of deep red ones. If you don’t care for the droopy look, you might prefer ‘Fat Spike’. Its flower clusters are still red but instead of falling to the ground, they reach for the sky.

All Amaranthus are annuals, consistently described as “easy to grow” from seed sown directly in the ground when it’s thoroughly warm in the spring. They are quite tough—sometimes described as “coarse” plants—but still susceptible to aphids, a beetle or two, and several viruses. Amaranthus tricolor has stunning foliage, but the other species have leaves of pale green and seem noteworthy only for their flower clusters. They do add a certain punch to the garden and they never fail to catch the eyes of passersby. A. caudatus can reach five feet, with a two-foot spread—although with our meager heat units, count on perhaps three feet in a summer that’s unusually hot and dry, like the one we had in 2003. And here we’re better off starting with transplants. A. caudatus needs summer days with high heat. It matures over a long period, and our warm days typically won’t stretch that far.

Don’t despair, however. You may decide to enjoy A. caudatus only in books. Consider the range of growing conditions members of the Amaranthus genus accept: either dry or moist, sandy, loamy, or heavy clay soil that is very acidic, neutral, very alkaline, or even saline. The only thing it must have is full sun. It tolerates drought and each plant can carry tens of thousands of seeds. Hmmm. A red flag goes up, and it’s not heart-shaped. Plants of this genus can thrive anywhere so long as they get direct sun over enough warm days. That matches the profile of a plant that’s likely to get out of hand. Some species of Amaranthus are already listed in some areas—in the U.S. and abroad—as noxious, invasive, or what the Australians call “sleepers”—plants that need keeping an eye on. Amaranthus retroflex is already considered one of the worst weeds in the world. Several countries have banned the import of other Amaranthus species, including A. caudatus.

Here the plot thickens. For many centuries, the leaves and seeds of Amaranthus species have been sources of food for native people from North and South America to Asia, India, Africa, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean region, and Eurasia. Amaranth was the principal grain crop of the Aztecs and known as the “golden grain of the gods” until all the fields and seeds were destroyed by the Spanish Conquistadors. The following are the words of more knowledgeable specialists than I—and better writers—from Lost Crops of the Incas: Little-Known Plants of the Andes with Promise for Worldwide Cultivation, produced by an Ad Hoc Panel of the National Research Council led by Noel Vietmeyer and published in 1989 by the National Academy Press in Washington, D.C. (available for reading online at http://books.nap.edu/books/030904264X/html/R1.html#pagetop):

“A staple grain of the Incas, Aztecs, and other pre-Columbian peoples, amaranth was once almost as widely dispersed throughout the Americas as corn. The most important Andean species is Amaranthus caudatus. In Quechua, the ancient Inca language that is still spoken in the Andes, it is called “kiwicha” (pronounced kee-wee-cha).

Kiwicha is one of the prettiest crops on earth; the beautiful colors of its broad leaves, stems, and flowers—purple, red, gold—create fiery fields that blaze across the mountainsides. The plant grows vigorously, tolerates drought, heat, and pests, and adapts readily to new environments, including some that are inhospitable to conventional grain crops. Nonetheless, it is little known outside the highland regions of Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and northwestern Argentina.

Kiwicha’s grains are scarcely bigger than poppy seeds. However, they occur in huge numbers—sometimes more than 100,000 to a plant. Like other amaranth grains, they are flavorful and, when heated, they pop to produce a crunchy white product that tastes like a nutty popcorn. Light and crisp, it is delicious as a snack, as a cold cereal with milk and honey, as a “breading” on chicken or fish, or in sweets with a whisper of honey. The grain is also ground into flour, rolled into flakes, “puffed,” or boiled for porridge. Because of its high nutritional value, it is considered especially good for children, invalids, and the elderly.

These seeds are one of the most nutritious foods grown. Not only are they richer in protein than the major cereals, but the amino acid balance of their protein comes closer to nutritional perfection for the human diet than that in normal cereal grains.”

So there you have it. An ornamental, not to my taste but perhaps to yours, which turns out to be possibly invasive in that role and yet very useful as a food source for the world’s future. A few thousand acres of amaranth are grown today in the United States. Do a little digging about amaranth—here and abroad—and you’ll uncover a fascinating tale of production techniques, sustainability, biodiversity, food production, and agriculture markets.

And you thought this month I would write only about hearts and flowers!

Two updates that might be of interest: first, Faye Agner was good enough to call after she read my January column and share her successful experience with one very well-treated Meyer lemon that grows in her home. I’ll tell you more about hers—and mine—in March. And second, John Van Miert has finished compiling and updating his Garden Miscellany columns into a book titled Garden Sense—on which I helped out just a little. We will be presenting it at the Garden Spot Nursery in Bellingham on February 28.