For a first post on a foraging blog, I might as well start with a basic – an edible weed. Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.), the perfect edible weed, almost globally abundant and of little challenge for the palate, the cook or the searcher. It is one of the major weeds of my vegetable plot, in which I also grow a cultivated type. Come March, either the weed (A. viridis), the cultivar (A. hypochondriacus I think) or both are there, boldly proclaiming the regrettable combination of heat, rain and my summer distraction from tending the plot. Making the best of it, assuaging my guilt and in the interests of health, it becomes harvest time. At a lot of other times, if perhaps my plot is actually properly at work with more intentional produce, I could almost as easily gather it as a more random weed.
It’s the stuff, along with warrigal greens (Tetragonia tetragonioides) and fat hen (Chenopodium album) that I most commonly throw into my version of a ‘mess o’ greens’, wilted, frozen in blocks in a friand tray, then chucked easily for some green veg into those quick lazy workday dinners. With these so easily to hand, I have given up growing spinach or silverbeet (chard). I would place it with the other abovementioned greens, nasturtium flowers, chickweed and purslane as one of the easiest entry points to wild plant foraging in Sydney.
Among the Greeks’ wild greens (or horta) is a plant known to them as vlita (Amaranthus blitum) that has been praised as far back as Homer. The glory days of amaranths were however in Pre-Columbian Mexico and the Inca Empire in South America where it was a staple ranked up there with corn and beans and still retains a traditional place that is regaining importance. In the United States it is being reborn as a leafy green targeted by a growing urban foraging movement under a variety of additional names including ‘pigweed’; by which it is also sometimes known in Britain, New Zealand and Australia. In the Philippines it is reportedly called calalloo, while half a world away in the West Indies this is also the name of a stew comprised mostly of amaranth leaf (see Davidson 1999). A leaf cropping variety (A. gangeticus) called tampala in India is also apparently grown in New Zealand under that name (Seed Savers Handbook). It is also a popular subsistence vegetable in tropical African countries like Nigeria and Benin.
There are varieties that are traditionally grown for leaves, seeds or both; and others like ‘love lies bleeding’ purely as an ornamental. In India, grain producing amaranth is known as rajgira (“king seed”) and ramdana (“seed sent by God”), and it is there that it now has it most intense cultivation and use. The seed cropping varieties have received quite a bit of attention since it was discovered that not only are the seeds high in protein but contain a better mix of amino acids like lysine and methionine for human dietary needs that any traditional cereal (as similarly claimed for buckwheat and quinoa). Being easy to grow from the tropics to frost-bitten lands with a short summer and producing large quantities of vegetable and grain, amaranths are one of those crops that have been nominated as a future super crop (NRC 1984). Seed cropping varieties are not common in Australia (although the Mexican A. hypochondriacus may be sourced online through Greenpatch Seeds). The common weedy types that proliferate here (mostly A. viridis and A. retroflexus) are noted as being difficult to harvest for seed because seed heads appear in smaller amounts all over the plant and at different times. They can however be very easily and productively foraged as wild greens.
Amaranth is reported to have arrived in Australia soon after Europeans although apparently as a weed rather than a crop and to have found a place in the occasionally desperate kitchens of early colonists before fading from use, if not from view (Low 1988). Others note that Chinese cooks on country properties across northern Australia also moved green amaranth varieties around with them, some persist in unusual places, and that Greek Australians have long grown it in their gardens here (Seed Savers Handbook). These are likely to have been varieties grown from seeds smuggled from home.
A leaf variety sold in recent years as en choy, may or not be the same previously grown by Chinese Australians, but if the NSW Department of Primary Industries is anything to go by, this will be the version that we are most likely to become familiar with. With large areas of red on the leaf containing the same betalains with helpful antioxidant claims as beetroot, very fast production times and some of the good amino acid factors of the seeds, it certainly has some big things going for it.
Amaranthus leaves can be picked at any time although certainly appear more appetizing when relatively young, tender and slightly lime green. Amaranth greens are classified by the Greeks as sweet (as opposed to bitter) but are usually considered mild to the point of being criticised as bland, which some have praised for providing a stage for seasoning (Gibbons 1962: 14). If you can boil water you can cook green amaranth. Use as you would any other cooked leaf green or look for recipes for horta vrasta.
Davidson, A. 1999. Oxford Companion to Food.
Gibbons, E. 1962. Stalking the Wild Asparagus. Chambersburg (PA): Alan C. Hood & Co.
Low, T. 1988. Wild Food Plants of Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.
National Research Council (USA). 1984. Amaranth: Modern prospects for an Ancient Crop. Washington (DC): National Academy Press (available as free download via GoogleBooks)
Seed Savers Handbook