PLB143 - Crop of the day: Amaranth

The crop of the day: Amaranth (Amaranthus spp., Amaranthaceae)

© Paul Gepts and Cristina Mapes 1996-2002



The genus Amaranthus


  • Wide distribution: Americas, Asia, Oceania; approx. 75 sp., mostly in the Americas
  • Habitat: desert washes, streambanks, ocean beaches
  • Natural dispersal: by seeds through birds
  • C4 photosynthesis: thrives in high temp., low moisture (limited transpiration)
  • Provides examples of vicarious domestications

The Asian amaranths

  • Amaranthus tricolor, A. lividis
  • Species selected as potherbs; no development of large inflorescences or heavy seed yield
  • Widely grown as a vegetable in India, East Indies, S.E. Asia, Far East


The American amaranths

  • Species selected for increased grain production --> large compound inflorescence
    • contrast with true cereals: here, selection for the number of seeds rather than seed size (1 mm)
  • No selection for decreased dehiscence
    • contrast with true cereals: little loss in seeds; remain in inflorescence, which is cut, dried, threshed, and winnowed
  • Three species:
    • A. cruentus: eastern N. America, tropical highlands of Mex., C. Am., S. Am.
    • A. hypochondriacus: western Sierra Madre in Mexico 

    • A. caudatus: Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, N.W. Argentina
  • Selection of clear-seeded: light color is associated with:
    • recessiveness
    • associated with loss of dormancy
    • pops and tastes better
  • Used for:
    • leaves: salads, soups, protein concentrates, dye
    • stems: feed, fuel
  • Nutritional value:
    • higher in protein than cereals: 13-18%
    • high in lysine
    • high in Ca, Mg, P, Fe, K, Zn, vit. E & B-complex
    • high in fibers
  • Cultivation and utilization
    • much more restricted than maize; currently major region of cultivation is India

  (bundle of leaves sold on the market) and
  (freshly harvested leaves)
  • Historical records:
      • maize: 9,900,000 kg
      • beans: 7,000,000 kg
      • huauhtli: 8,100,000 kg (amaranth+chenopod)
  • Linguistic: náhuatl: huauhtli, quilitl; quechua: kiwicha
  • Ceremonial role: paste of huauhtli grains and agave (maguey) honey:
    • large replica (tzoalli) of war god Huitzlipochtli
    • paraded through the streets of Tenochtitlan
    • human sacrifices
    • distributed to people as flesh and bones of the god (note red color)
    • Spanish catholics: parody of communion --> actively suppressed