New York Times writer Ava Chin recently blogged about Amaranthus after repeatedly stumbling upon the leafy plant growing through metro-area sidewalk cracks from Staten Island to New York City. The annual herb, comprised of 70 species, can reach six feet in height with foliage varying from green to shades of purple, red and gold, and occasionally bearing flowers.
Chin notes that the Amaranthus retroflexus, a wild version of the pigweed, also known as wild beet, was once a staple of the Aztec diet. The Aztecs believed the plant to hold supernatural health- and strength-giving properties. The Aztecs once incorporated the seeds into a ritual, in which mixtures of amaranth seed, honey and blood were made into images of gods and then eaten, reported ChetDay.com. But Aztecs later found the Christian ritual of communion disturbing, and hence banned the cultivation of amaranth, as it was tied to their similar tradition.
Inca and Mayan civilizations also enjoyed the plant as a vegetable and grain, according to LiveStrong.com, Lance Armstrong's informational health website. The Incas considered the Amaranthus seed sacred. Each year, the first seed was planted by the king using a golden spade.
Edible raw or cooked, today it is regularly found in healthy cereals—the seeds ground into a meal. Amaranth produces prolific small seeds, a little larger than poppy seeds in various colors: black, red or ivory. The seeds cook rapidly and are used as a food, prepared like a grain, especially for hot cereal or flour. They can also be popped like popcorn or toasted.
The vegetable tastes nice sauteed, much like spinach or rhubarb with its similar reddish stem and deeply veined leaves. Because the leaves contain oxalic acid and may contain nitrates, if grown in nitrogen-rich soil, the water should be thrown out after boiling.
The plant, native to the tropical Americas, even touts a Facebook page (with a mere two fans, thus far).