Amaranth & Pigweed

"Pigweed" is a common name for a few different plants, including lambsquarters, but the particular pigweed I'm writing about is the one whose genus is Amaranthus, also known as "amaranth."

One of the better known species, Palmer amaranth, aka Palmer pigweed (Amaranthus Palmeri), is an invasive weed that plagues cotton and soybean fields in the South.

There are around 60 species of amaranth — all have varying degrees of good-to-eatness.

Amaranth or pigweed leaves

Amaranth or pigweed leaves

Edibility

In spite of some wild rumors, all amaranth can be eaten — even glyphosate-resistant Palmer pigweed — with a couple of caveats.

For one, any plant that has been sprayed or grows in pesticide-sprayed soil will most likely absorb the toxic chemicals, making the plant itself toxic. 

In addition to pesticide, amaranth has a tendency to accumulate nitrates and oxalates, which can make it unpalatable and unsafe for eating.

Agricultural fields have high levels of nitrates from synthetic fertilizer, so it's best not to forage in these fields where commercial crops are or have been grown.

The seed can only be eaten when it's cooked, as it inhibits nutrient absorption when consumed raw.

How does it taste?

As greens go, most folks consider amaranth better than acceptable but probably not what you would call "top shelf." 

I'm partial to its cousin, lambsquarters, but amaranth leaves are definitely worth foraging.

I have a friend who prefers amaranth over lambsquarters for flavor, though. Maybe it's more of an acquired taste.

Picked young enough, amaranth leaves do make a good, mildly flavored steamed green, reminiscent of steamed spinach, and the flavor varies from species to species, some more bitter than others.

Cooked amaranth seeds are sort of nutty.

The flavor is sometimes described as earthy or grassy.

Ancient Grain?

Not really. Ancient super-food? Maybe. But, in technical terms, amaranth seeds aren't really grain.

Like buckwheat, amaranth is considered a "pseudo-cereal," which basically means it's not in the grass family like wheat and corn — it seems like a subtle difference but pseudo-cereal seeds are not the same as "true" grains.  

Ancient it is, though. It was a main staple of the Aztecs and was cultivated by them as long as 8,000 years ago.

Before that, it was foraged wild.

One of the amaranth seed's most attractive traits, in an era of anti-wheat, is simply the fact that amaranth is gluten-free.

And unlike a lot of gluten-free wheat alternatives, it's really good for you.

Nutrition

In terms of nutrition, "amaranth" is usually synonymous with "amaranth seed," so most of the published nutrition information refers to the seed, or amaranth flour.

For the casual forager, though, amaranth leaves are more accessible and require little processing effort compared with the seed.

The greens are similar to spinach, beet greens, and chard — they're all in the same family, Amaranthaceae — but amaranth has more than twice as much vitamin C as kale and four times more than spinach.

It's also high in vitamin A and calcium, as well as a host of other healthful vitamins and minerals.

See the USDA's amaranth leaves nutrition table for details.

Amaranth seed has more protein and fewer carbohydrates than both buckwheat and white rice, and its protein is more complete.

According to this study, amaranth seed's protein is similar to animal protein. 

See the USDA's amaranth grain nutrition table for a full list of nutrients.

Identification

amaranth stem
Amaranth stem

Pigweed plants can grow to over six feet high with alternating oval to diamond-shaped leaves that may be up to six inches long.

The greenish stems tend to turn red as they mature, and although most species of pigweed grow upright, prostrate pigweed (Amaranthus blitoides and Amaranthus blitoides) grows along the ground.

The stems are usually smooth or slightly hairy except for spiny pigweed (Amaranthus spinosus), which has thorns — I first discovered this when unsuspectingly weeding my garden with bare hands.

Of course the wickedly thorny variety is what usually volunteers in my beds.

The tiny flowers of amaranth grow by the hundreds along the stem and are easily recognized in fields where they emerge above crops like cotton.

The flower spikes are probably the plant's most identifiable trait.

The flowers eventually dry out and yield tiny husked seeds which may then be harvested.

Habitat

North America is home to both native and introduced species of pigweed -- at least one species can be found throughout the entire continent.

Amaranth's/pigweed's favorite stomping grounds are disturbed areas like fields, yards, and the edges of woods.

It seems to tolerate most soil types but it really thrives in the rich soil of a well-amended garden.

I frequently see it on the edges of fields and parks.

If you find lambsquarters, you're likely to find amaranth growing nearby, as they're similar plants and do well in similar conditions.

How to Harvest

For greens, pick amaranth leaves from young plants avoiding larger leaves — smaller to medium-sized leaves are more tender and more nutrient-rich than their bigger counterparts.

The seeds are ready to harvest when they start falling off of the plant, usually towards middle to late summer.

First cut off the entire flower head and put in a paper or fine mesh bag, and then let them dry for a week or two in a well-ventilated, shady area, like open-air barn.

Or you can use a room or closet with a dehumidifier running.

amaranth flowers
Amaranth flower head

When the seeds are dry and ready to separate, either thresh by rubbing the flower heads in your hands over a container, or by gently beating the bags of flower heads with a stick.

This works better if you have mesh bags.

Then sift the seeds through a strainer to remove the coarser chaff.

Store in clean jars or use right away.

How to Cook

Cook young tender pigweed leaves as you would spinach; steam or sauté/stir-fry in butter or oil.

Pigweed seeds should never be eaten raw. To cook, add to boiling water and simmer uncovered for 25 to 30 minutes.

For more of a soupy porridge-type texture, use one part seeds to three parts water.

One to one makes a really firm consistency.

One part seeds to two parts water is a happy medium.

 

Comments

Great article! Good to know pigweed is so nutritious! I have it growing all over my garden and I've just been pulling it out and throwing it in my compost pile but I think I'll start harvesting it to eat.

Thanks, Jonathan! I love "weeds" that can go straight into the harvest basket with the rest of the food crops!

I’m gathering amaranth to collect seed to feed my chickens. I’m interested in knowing how to feed ourselves and our chickens in case of disaster. Helpful article! The local amaranth seems to be a variety called “water hemp,” growing in wet areas.

Awesome, I'm glad it was helpful! Thanks for mentioning water hemp... I'd never heard of it but I just googled it. Looks like its Latin name is Amaranthus tuberculatus.