Family: Amaranthaceae (Amaranth family)
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.
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
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
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
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
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.