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Thursday, June 13, 2019

Foraging Wild Amaranth; Wild Edible Green and Pseudo Grain


I really love when there's a plant that I forage and can write about that literally grows around the world. It makes me feel really connected to people around the world and in various cultures, despite our differences. Today's plant that I wanted to talk about, slender amaranth, is exactly one of those. I saw a map about its worldwide distribution and it shows that amaranth grows in every place on the globe other than the extreme north and south parts of it. Not surprisingly, its used as a staple crop in many parts of the world.

I've written before about local foraging, and how some plants are super well known among the native foragers here, such as purslane, wood sorrel, mallow, and mustard, and yet there are other plants like black nightshade, cactus paddles, and amaranth that no one local seems to forage for whatever reason. For years I knew how to identify one of the varieties of amaranth that grows around me, but until I finally met someone locally who foraged it, a family of immigrants from Mexico who called it quintonille, I was hesitant to try it. Finally I got over my hesitation and amaranth has been a regular part of my summer foraging.

Where I live it doesn't rain in the summer, so foraging can be a little bit harder, because not so many things are growing in the dryness. Fortunately, over time I've discovered plenty of summer forageables, from amaranth to lambsquarters to cactus paddles to black nightshade and purslane and much more. Amaranth is one of those plants I can find year round, but locally it seems to grow to its full capacity in the summer.

There's posts on this blog in which I've talked about foraging amaranth before, I've included recipes using amaranth before, but I've never actually written about on how to identify it and use it, and figured that its now time to rectify that.


Part of the reason it took me so long to write this post is because, like with wild mustard, there are so many different varieties of wild amaranth that its hard to pinpoint the exact species down, so I didn't feel competent enough to share this knowledge with you, even though I know they're all edible.

The types of amaranth I'll be talking about in this this post are either amaranthus blitum or amaranthus virdis, commonly known as purple amaranth or Guernsey pigweed and slender amaranth or green amaranth respectively. (I honestly can't tell the difference between the two, and I honestly don't see a reason to unless that is something about which you're passionate, in which case I would gladly hear what the difference between these two plants are.) I'm choosing these to share because they have the most easily recognizable features, making them an easy to forage plant.

If you're hearing amaranth and thinking "Hey, wait, isn't that a grain?" you're right and also wrong. Amaranth is a pseudo grain, meaning that it is not a real grain (which come from the grass family) but has many similar properties and can be used as a grain and turned into flour. Local health food stores sell amaranth grains here.

However, the more useful, in my opinion, part of the plant is its leaves.

A summer forage of capers, lambsquarter leaves, amaranth leaves and grains, and mustard seeds
Scientifically amaranths are a genus in the Amaranthaceae family, known colloquially as the amaranth family. I've previously written here about foraging two other members of the amaranth family, sea beet, which is in the Beta genus of the amaranth family, and lambsquarters, which are in the Chenopodium genus. A cousin of theirs, the Spinacea genus, is the genus that contains spinach, so it's probably not surprising that all of these are sometimes referred to as wild spinach, as they can basically be used interchangeably for spinach in any recipe.
Likewise, Chenopodium, which is the genus that contains lambsquarters is also the genus that contains quinoa, the well known psuedograin, which is why the fact that amaranth's seeds/grains also grow in a similar fashion is unsurprising.

Nutritionally amaranth is a power house, chock full of vitamins A, K, B6, C, B2, B9, not to mention calcium, iron, magnesium, potassium, zinc, copper and manganese.

Mushrooms stuffed with amaranth and chestnuts, vegan and paleo and delicious
While amaranth can be eaten both raw and cooked, I'll admit that I'm not a fan of it raw (I taste this slight chalkiness when I eat it raw). Cooked though, even slightly cooked, even a couple of seconds sometimes, is enough for me to love it.

It tastes pretty much identical to spinach. Earthy, green, slightly bitter but not in an unpleasant way.

Potatoes with three cheese sauce and amaranth greens
Any way you'd use spinach, you can use this. The sky is the limit. Soups, patties, lasagna, stir fries, ravioli, creamed, etc...

So, how do you identify it and are there any poisonous look alikes?

Well, I don't live around the world, so I can't tell you if there are absolutely no poisonous look alikes anywhere in the world, but I can tell you how to tell them apart from the only plant that looks somewhat similar to it locally, pellitory of the wall.

Pellitory of the wall. NOT amaranth.
Amaranth and pellitory both like growing near walls. If you've noticed, nearly every picture of amaranth growing here is taken near walls. It is such a common weed where I live, growing from cracks between sidewalks and walls. Of course its there in abandoned lots and yards, but the most common place I see it is along walls.

Both plants have overall almond shaped green leaves. However pellitory's leaves are pointy at both ends, like an eye, whereas the base of the amaranth leaves are flat.

Both amaranth and pellitory next to each other. Pellitory more in the foreground and smaller, and amaranth bigger and higher up.
Both plants tend to have purplish/reddish/brownish stems, but sometimes the stem can be more green as well.

A very good way to identify wild amaranth and to tell it apart from all other possible look alikes unfortunately isn't always there. And I'm not quite sure why. Some plants have it on some leaves and not the other. Sometimes it's faded and sometimes its there clear as day.


Its this white or light green chevron going across the leaf. Each leaf only has one. The only other plant that I know has this is certain varieties of local clover, but they are very different looking so there's no way you'd confuse them.

Clover with its white chevron
Here's a few more pictures where the white chevron is clear.



Here.



And here its there, but a little less clear.


And here you have it there, but faded. Look closely.


Can you see the chevron here?


What about here? Do you see the chevron?


That was a trick question. There isn't a chevron there, not even faded. But that's still the same type of amaranth. I really have no idea why it's sometimes there clear, sometimes faded, and sometimes non existent. If a plant geek wants to enlighten me, I'd be fascinated.

So basically, if you see the chevron there, you're good to go (as long as its not clover, but clover isn't poisonous). If you don't see it, look for the other signs I mention.


Remember how I mentioned that amaranth is a pseudograin? They grow at the top of this gorgeous "flower". I know, doesn't look like much of a flower, but that's it right there. Pellitory, on the other hand, has flowers along its length, not at the top of it.


At first this is a flower, and then it gets fertilized, and once it does, there are a bunch of grains hidden in here.

Me, demonstrating to some children at a foraging class, how you expose the seeds
To expose the grains, pick off the seed heads on top and run them between your hands briskly. That will loosen them from the stalk and remove some of their covering, and you'll see these black seeds that look not too unlike poppy seeds.

If you want to do a lot of hard work, you can collect the seed heads, let them dry, and then thresh and winnow them, to remove the chaff and stem from the seeds.



Or, you can do like I do and just collect the seed heads, let them dry, take out the stems and leaves (if you want, not so imperative) and then grind them up like that. You can then grind it up as is, and you'll have flour together with ground greens, which isn't necessarily something you'd want to be using for a sweet dish, but they work well for savory pancakes, for example, or any other recipe where using greens and grains together taste good. (I haven't tried it to make homemade pasta, but that's on my list.)

There are two more local plants that have similar seed heads that I wanted to point out.

Annual mercury, poisonous semi look alike.
This poisonous plant, in my opinion, looks nothing like amaranth, even the green is entirely the wrong shade. However, because they sometimes have similar seed heads, I am mentioning it. But notice how the leaves have jagged edges? The leaves of amaranth are completely smooth. Sometimes they frill a little bit, but the edges themselves are smooth.


Lambsquarters, amaranth's cousin, mentioned above, also has similar seed heads. The difference here also is with the edges of the leaf, in that the edges of lambsquarter leaves look like the webbed foot of a duck, hence its latin name, chenopodium, which mean's goosefoot.

I think at this point, I gave enough information that even the most skeptical forager will be able to identify this plant.


So now let's go ahead and forage!

Happy foraging!

Ever seen this plant growing near you? Heard of amaranth before? Have you eaten it, and if so, just the grains or also the greens? What is your favorite way to prepare amaranth? And if we have any plant geeks here, I'll rewrite my aforementioned questions: why are there only chevrons sometimes? And what is the difference between slender and purple amaranth? Thanks so much in advance!

2 comments:

  1. Thank you for sharing this! I forage, too, but this is a new plant for me. I'll pay attention and look for this now as well.

    ReplyDelete

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