Mention "pigweed" in a south Georgia feed and seed and you're liable to hear a slew of words unfit for Sunday service. Pigweed has few friends in south Georgia or any of the farming communities that have been stricken by its glyphosate-resistant tenacity.
But mention "amaranth" in an Asheville co-op and you'll likely get an earful of evangalism for one of the oldest intentionally cultivated food crops that we know of.
And yet, they're the same plant.
"Pigweed" is a common name for a few different plants, including lambsquarters, but this particular pigweed is the one whose genus is Amaranthus.
The plant that plagues cotton and soybean fields in the South is mostly Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus Palmeri), aka Palmer pigweed, a champion of natural evolution — one that has emerged triumphant over the GMO assault and retaliated with a vengeance akin to karmic retribution.
There are around 60 species of amaranth — all have varying degrees of good-to-eatness.
Is All Pigweed Edible?
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 survives the onslaught of toxic petro-pesticides will most likely harbor the toxic constituents of the pesticide and pass them on to whomever eats the plant.
Amaranth also has a propensity to accumulate nitrates and oxalates, which can make it unpalatable and unsafe for eating, especially when it grows in soil that's been over-exposed to nitrates from commercial fertilizer.
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.
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 to me but apparently 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.
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 supposedly more complete. According to this study, amaranth seed's protein is similar to animal protein. See the USDA's amaranth seed nutrition table for a full list of nutrients.
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.
Where Can Pigweed or Amaranth Be Found?
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.
Since amaranth is such a weedy, farmer-plaguing plant, be careful harvesting in areas that may have been sprayed with toxic chemicals — or that may have absorbed high levels of nitrates from fertilizer.
Harvest & Process
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.
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.