There are around 60 species in the Amaranth family (‘Amaranthaceae’). There is quite a bit of variation among amaranths; some are weeds (e.g. pigweed), some are used as ornamentals, and some are grown as grain crops. Quinoa is also in the Amaranthaceae family, and both quinoa and the grain amaranths are commonly grown in South America, India, and other places for their seed grain. Even most of the grain amaranths are very ‘ornamental’ with inflorescences (flowers) that are red, pink, purple, orange, or yellow. In fact, they are said to be some of the most beautiful agricultural fields in the world!
There are three main types of Amaranths grown for seed grain:
- A. hypochondriacus is the most commonly grown species. It was originally grown by the Aztecs, who called it huahtli. It is very common in South America.
- A. cruentus is known as Mexican grain amaranth, and is the second most commonly grown grain amaranth, originally cultivated in Mexico. It made its way to eastern Asia a long time ago and has been cultivated there for a long time, more for its leaves than its seed. The leaves are popular as a vegetable and as an addition to salads.
- A. caudatus is the third most commonly grown grain amaranth. It was originally cultivated in the valleys of the Andes. This is the one I’ve focused on for this article, though many of the uses and growing methods described below are the same for all three (for both seeds and leaves).
A. caudatus is also known by several other names, depending on where you are and what language you’re speaking. Here are some examples:
- English: Love lies bleeding, love lies ‘a bleeding, tassel flower, tassel amaranth (there are several amaranths, and this is the one that grows the largest tassels), Inca wheat, foxtail amaranth, velvet flower, tassel flower, and quilete (I’ve never heard the last one used, for myself, yet)
- Spanish: Kiwicha (commonly used in Spanish-speaking countries in South America), Amaranto
- Portuguese: Amaranto de cauda
A. caudatus (Kiwicha) produces a protein-rich seed. Each seed is only about the size of a poppy seed, but each plant can produce up to 100,000 seeds or more. Seeds from wild varieties are black, and seeds from the cultivated varieties are a light in color (I’ve seen white, light brown, and pinkish seeds).
Kiwicha seems to be enjoying a slight rise in popularity… but not as quickly as its Quinoa cousin. Quinoa seeds are 3-5 times larger than kiwicha seeds, so it does make them a little easier to harvest and winnow than kiwicha seeds.
You’ll occasionally see kiwicha touted as a “superfood”. The term “superfood” seems to me to be more of a clever word usage for marketing than anything else. Just remember that even if it sounds exotic to you, it’s commonplace somewhere else. Maybe somewhere in the world someone is looking at an apple for the first time and saying, “Oh my gosh, that’s a super amazing food! It’s going to cure everybody of everything!” (Okay I’m being a little sarcastic here… I’ll get off my soap box. I think you get the point.) On to some nutritional and cultivation details…
The seeds of kiwicha contain approximately 12-16% protein (a possible reason for its ‘superfood’ claim?), and are particularly high in lysine, methionine, and cysteine (which are essential amino acids). Methionine and cysteine happen to be the only two amino acids that contain sulfur. Kiwicha lacks some of the amino acids found in our common grains, such as leucine and threonine, but because it contains a greater amount of lysine it is a great compliment for some of our common grains (such as wheat, which contains very little lysine) to form a “complete protein”.
Kiwicha doesn’t contain any gluten, so it’s a good replacement for grains for people with a gluten sensitivity. However, when it’s used in bread-making, kiwicha flour is never used alone. It usually replaces only about 10-15% of the wheat flour (certainly no more than 25%). Any more than that and the bread becomes denser, too moist, and less palatable. Gluten is the protein in bread that forms the structure of the bread, so naturally, by replacing some of the wheat flour with a flour that doesn’t contain gluten, the bread won’t be able to rise and hold it’s shape and structure as well. But even though kiwicha flour doesn’t make good bread, you can make 100% kiwicha flour biscuits, muffins, and other quick breads and certain types of pastries.
The seeds can also be eaten popped like popcorn, cooked into a porridge, or added to granola or muesli. I’ve been told that the wild, black seeds have a stronger, more peppery taste which would not make it palatable as a porridge. But from my experience, the lighter-colored seeds from more modern cultivars only have a very light, grain taste and are perfectly suitable as a porridge.
The seeds of kiwicha do not contain any saponins, which are responsible for the soapy, bitter taste in quinoa. Saponins are chemical compounds that become soapy and foamy when combined with water. That’s why quinoa has to be rinsed thoroughly… it helps remove most of the saponins.
As far as vitamins and minerals are concerned, the nutritional content of kiwicha seed grain is basically on par with quinoa, and it actually contains slightly higher levels of calcium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, manganese, niacin (a B vitamin), and vitamin B6.
The leaves of kiwicha are also edible. The older leaves are a bit large and somewhat thick and coarse, but the young leaves are smaller and more tender. They can be steamed like spinach and eaten as a vegetable or added to salads. Unlike spinach, however, they do not contain oxalate (which decreases the absorption of calcium), and they have a milder taste.
Most of the amaranths can grow quite tall. Kiwicha can grow around 2-5 feet in height (90-170 cm), depending on growing and light conditions. Along with growing so tall, they can also branch out quite a bit. If you do plant more than one kiwicha be sure to leave 18-32 inches (45-75 cm) between plants. It grows pretty well in both arid and humid climates and does best in a moderately fertile, well-draining soil. It does not do well if overwatered, so make sure the soil is able to drain well to prevent root rot, and keep the watering consistent. Kiwicha is drought-tolerant, once it’s established, and is able to produce its seed-grain on a lower amount of water than our common grains, such as wheat or oats, which is an advantage for places that experience drought conditions in high summer.
Kiwicha does well in full sun but it will also grow pretty well in partial shade. The flowers are generally described as anywhere from a red to a purple, but may also include oranges and yellows.
Once kiwicha has reached its full height, it sends out inflorescences, first from the top of the stalk, and then on down the stalk at each leaf node. Since the inflorescences appear at different times, the seeds all mature at different rates. You may want to check each inflorescence about 4 weeks after it appears, and each week after that. When most of the seeds in the tassel are dry, you can clip off the tassel and harvest the seeds. Or you can just cut the whole plant at the end of the season and thresh it and winnow it then.
To collect the seeds place the tassel in a cloth bag and thresh it to free the seed. To remove the chaff, you’ll either need a special screen with holes just big enough for the seed, but too small to allow the tiny flower petals to pass through; or, because the seeds are tiny spheres, you could use the ‘ramp’ method: Using a cookie sheet and a cutting board, set the cookie sheet flat on the counter, and form an angled ‘ramp’ with the cutting board. Pour the seed into the cookie sheet, and blow toward the ramp. The seed will roll up the ramp and roll back down, while the petals and other chaff will be blown beyond the cutting board. (Which means that, if you don’t want a mess in your kitchen, this might be an outdoor activity for you.)
Kiwicha grows easily from seeds, but it must be protected from frost. You can start it indoors 4-6 weeks before spring planting (after the last frost). Cover lightly with soil. It will germinate quite quickly, sometimes within 3-5 days. It must be transplanted while it is still small. The larger it gets, the more difficult it becomes for the plant to establish itself. Kiwicha does not do well with root disturbance. You can plant it in a peat pot and just stick the whole pot in the ground at planting time to avoid hurting the plant altogether. If you buy kiwicha from a store or nursery, follow the same principle – buy it small, or make sure it’s in a peat pot.
The seeds can self-sow from previous plants, but they won’t grow until after the last frost. In some areas (think Alaska) this may be too late for the tassels to form and the seed to ripen. Anywhere else, you’ll probably get at least a good hefty tassel or two from each plant, even if it doesn’t produce as much as it could’ve with a longer season. (This is my preferred method. The bother of sowing it early and transplanting it isn’t worth it, in my opinion, since it germinates and grows so well.)
Their ability to self-sow so readily may mean that you’ll be pulling up kiwicha plants in areas where they were grown before. It’s easily done, though, and as long as they’re pulled up before they mature and go to seed, they’re easily managed.
I have heard it said that kiwicha is a ‘weak perennial’ and can bloom nearly year-round in mild climates, but I haven’t been in a climate yet where I can test for that. It generally blooms from mid-summer (sometimes early summer) through mid-fall, and it’s a gorgeous and interesting addition to any garden!
We always have a bit of insect/disease damage, but it didn’t affect the overall plant or the yield. (I don’t know what it is and haven’t been able to find a source that can tell me.) Sometimes the leaves became light-colored halfway through the summer, so we give them a dose of nitrogen and they greened right up, so it may be caused by a nitrogen deficiency… which make sense since the seeds are high in protein which uses up a lot of nitrogen. However, toward the end of the summer, the lower leaves will turn yellow naturally, which indicates that it’s time to harvest the heavy, seed-filled tassels.
I have grown kiwicha in a pot, very successfully. It didn’t branch out quite as much as usual, but that could also be due to less than optimal light as being confined to a pot. You don’t usually have to stake kiwicha, (it’s stem is surprisingly strong and well-able to handle the heavy tassel) but when I grew it in a pot I did use a stake, more as a precaution than anything. If you stake it, be sure to put the stake in when you transplant it, or when you first sow it, to avoid damaging the roots.
As far as self-sufficiency and independence goes, I love having kiwicha seeds around. It’s a grain that can be harvested by hand, and the big, heavy tassels can be cut down at one time, giving a decent harvest in one bunch. If you have a large cloth sack in hand (a clean pillowcase will do), you could harvest several tassels at the same time and easily thresh them. Removing the tiny, pink/red flower petals takes a bit of time until you get the hang of it, but then you have a jar of protein-packed seeds ready to be added to granola, porridge, muesli, or used like popcorn.
(As always, before eating anything new, be sure you know exactly what it is.)