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Isn't this just gorgeous? I love the site of a corn field, but imagine seeing a field of amaranth!

Well, I have been absolutely amazed at what I am discovering about amaranth, and I think it will take several posts to pass it all on. But this plant deserves it. Amaranth has such a long history, is so versatile, is higher in nutritional value than most greens or grains, and is all around us, not only as a weed but as well-known annuals and perennials! So I begin with a little history.

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Amaranth has been prominent in western culture for thousands of years. Only as we have gotten farther away from nature has this important plant been forgotten. Its name is derived from the Greek for "never-fading flower", as the petals which surround the tiny seeds are dry and never fade. Amaranth was considered sacred to the goddess Artemis, believed to have healing properties, and was a symbol of immortality often used to decorate tombs. In the 6th century BC, Aesop told a fable about the amaranth:

"A Rose and an Amaranth blossomed side by side in a garden, and the Amaranth said to her neighbor, "How I envy you your beauty and your sweet scent! No wonder you are such a universal favorite." But the Rose replied with a shade of sadness in her voice, "Ah, my dear friend, I bloom but for a time: my petals soon wither and fall, and then I die. But your flowers never fade, even if they are cut; for they are everlasting."

Amaranth continued to be referenced in literature and poetry for centuries, and is found in Milton’ Paradise Lost (1667), in which we learn that Amaranth once grew by the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, but was returned to heaven to shade the fountain of life instead, where the saints adorn their hair with its flowers:

"Immortal amarant, a flower which once
In paradise, fast by the tree of life,
Began to bloom; but soon for man's offence
To heaven removed, where first it grew, there grows,
And flowers aloft, shading the fount of life,
And where the river of bliss through midst of heaven
Rolls o'er elysian flowers her amber stream:
With these that never fade the spirits elect
Bind their resplendent locks."

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Meanwhile, in South and Central America, the amaranth was appreciated just as greatly, if not more. It was more than just symbolic to the Aztecs; it was life-sustaining. Amaranth was a major food source for them, and was an indispensable part of the Aztec religion. Also believing it a symbol of immortality, they attributed to it magical powers, considering it the source of strength for their ferocious warriors. Amaranth was used ritually, including being mixed with honey and human blood, shaped into idols, and ritually eaten. So disgusted were the Spaniards by the human sacrifice, and clearly recognizing that amaranth was one of the fundamental pillars of their brutal culture and religion, they burned the fields and forbade the cultivation of amaranth.

Now, we can be very thankful that the Aztec human sacrifices were stopped – certainly the neighboring tribes were! That’s why they helped the Spaniards, so the Aztecs would stop stealing them for sacrifice. But we can nonetheless grieve that the amaranth was not exported to Europe and turned into a major crop, as squash and corn and other native American foods were. Alas, its unfortunate association with human sacrifice caused it to almost disappear, living wild in the mountains of Mexico. Although eaten in other parts of the world, it had not been cultivated to perfection the way it had been by the Aztecs. Fortunately, in the 1970s, interest in amaranth as a major food source was revived, superior strains were reclaimed from the wild, and a new amaranth industry was born.

I will go into the tremendous nutritional value of amaranth in my next installment of … Amazing Amaranth!

 


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