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Forgotten Grains - Amaranth and Quinoa

Monday, 23 September 2013 00:00 Written by  R.S.N.

Grains are credited with the population booms of the human race. Once humans figured out how to grow and harvest increasing yields of high-calorie starches, our numbers started exploding. Once we perfected the chemicals and machines we needed to plant enormous blocks of the highest-use and highest-yield grains, we left by the wayside some of the more traditional grain crops.

For some to many, whole acres of grain crops may not be an option – some barely have a yard. For others, dry climates and an inability to irrigate make some crops difficult. That leaves those people reliant upon national shipping for their primary starches. Shipping being precarious, many of us stock up on grains even if we anticipate the ability to raise livestock, hunt, fish, and grow vegetable crops.

Grains like wheat, white rice, and oatmeal are popular because they’re inexpensive, store forever, and offer some versatility with meals. They do lack a little variety, though, it can be difficult to grow them in small-space situations. There are other options, though, that can help small growers and add nutrients and variety for those with larger fields.

Growing Amaranth and Quinoa

First I’d like to say that if you hit Peru and Ecuador, it’s “quin-wah” or “queen-wah” or “keen-wuh” depending on the accent. Second I’d like to point out that neither amaranth nor quinoa should be mushy-mushy, oatmeal-like. A lot of labels say to boil or simmer them for a half hour – I rarely cook mine more than fifteen or twenty minutes. If the mushiness has been off-putting, maybe you’d be willing to give them just one more shot.

Amaranth and quinoa can be talked about at the same time because they’re extremely similar. Neither is a true grass, so neither is actually a true grain. They both have tall central stalks with toothy leaves popping off for most of their length. They both terminate in gorgeous cones of vivid honey to coral to magenta colored flowers with complicated multiple inflorescence. As such, they serve well as ornamentals, so they can be grown in the ‘burbs right by the driveway or lining fences and lots. They do require room, as both grow four to eight feet tall and require twelve to twenty inches of spread. They don’t thrive in small container gardens, but make excellent shading for porches and lower windows, dying back in the winter to allow natural solar heating of the home.

Neither is plagued by common grain pests in this country. Both are susceptible to ergot grass fungi, which can be toxic to humans and grazing animals, so if ergot is already widespread in the lawn the amaranth and quinoa may pick it up in the second generation, if not the first. Some insects will damage foliage, but neither is as prone to pest problems as some other grains.

Growing Conditions

One of the major benefits is the variety of soils and conditions these two cover. The rule of thumb is that quinoa is a cold-weather plant and amaranth prefers hot climates. However, increasing interests in ancient grains for health and allergy reasons and the spread of international cuisine in the foodie worlds have resulted in varieties of both that will handle wider temperature ranges.

Most quinoa varieties will handle frosts without problem except for the flowering stages. Once seeds have begun to ripen, some quinoa can even handle two-night freezes as long as the ground warms up again afterward. This is an Andean grain, a grain originating at high elevations, and has been long adapted to freak freezes in the middle of summer. At temperatures over 90 degrees, it fails to thrive and fails to flower or set seed. Those areas would be better served with amaranth, which is traditionally a hot-climate grain.

The even bigger benefit is that both are drought tolerant and neither requires nutrient-rich soils. Amaranth has the widest range of moisture tolerance, growing in areas with as little as 7 inches and as much as 120 inches of rainfall. Quinoa handles climates with ten inches to forty inches of rainfall, originating in areas where 8 or 12 inches is the norm. Both need some dampness while germinating, but in most areas only the most prolonged droughts would require additional irrigation after that.

Along with the freezes and dry conditions, quinoa has adapted to long-farmed sites on mountainsides – where the good soil and organic matter commonly washes away. As such, it is uniquely suited for poor, thin soils. Both prefer well-drained sandy or loamy soil but neither absolutely requires them.

Compacted lawns and heavy clay soils will require tilling for aeration and drainage purposes, but the problem of clays binding minerals and nutrients – conditions where other crop grains sometimes suffer – doesn’t overly disrupt quinoa or amaranth. Both respond to nitrogen and phosphorus, creating the towering seven and eight foot specimens that produce a pound of seed for every twelve plants, but they don’t need it. They will remain shorter four and five foot specimens and yield may drop to a half pound of grain for every twelve plants, but they will still successfully produce seed.

Both are long growing plants, taking 110 to 140 days to produce their seed. They are slow starters, thus will need some help early on or weed competition can choke them out. Seeds can be hand-planted with “nests” of mulch ringing the seed for two to four inches to give them a head start. They can also be hand-planted instead of row sown somewhere low-lying clovers have been established. The short clover varieties hold space for the amaranth and quinoa as a living mulch and also offer nitrogen to the plants.

Harvest and Processing

One of the things keeping amaranth and quinoa out of the Midwest is that neither is particularly adapted to machine harvests. Seeds mature at such different rates; hand harvesting is the most efficient method – which lowers the efficiency on the grand scale. The easiest way to harvest is to just bend the tall stalks over and shake the flowers into a bucket. Mature seeds will fall easily. Unripe seeds can be collected another day. The stalks are too delicate to handle a mesh net most of the time and the flower heads too broad for stockings, the way some other grains can be protected from birds.

One of the best indicators that seeds are ready to fall is the presence of those small birds. At about a hundred days, one to two weeks after the flower ovaries have swollen, both amaranth and quinoa should be checked, then checked every few days after.

A huge benefits to amaranth and quinoa is that both are hull-less. Once collected, chaff can be winnowed out with blowers or fans or screens. For amaranth nothing else is required.

Quinoa has soapy, bitter saponins on the seed. In daily life, the seeds can be cleansed by running them through the washer on a cold cycle – bundled inside stockings or a pillowcase, these are not pumpkin seeds. It can also be rubbed briskly in five times its volume of water, requiring two to five changes of water depending on the hardness of the water. Instead of rubbing, holes can be drilled in a plunger and the quinoa agitated the same way clothing would be hand laundered in a bucket system. Once suds and soapy film stops developing in the water, the quinoa is ready.


Both seeds should be dried thoroughly before storage. A dehydrator at less than a hundred and ten degrees can be used or they can be laid on trays in the sun – as long as they are protected from birds. Quinoa can be separated from chaff and dried immediately or it can be processed right away and then allowed to dry. At temperatures over a hundred degrees, quinoa seeds start suffering decreased germination rates, so seeds that are intended for planting a second crop should be air dried only.

Once completely dry, both can be stored in canning jars in the fridge for four to nine months. For longer storage, they can be packed with oxygen absorbers. Seed stock should not be stored with oxygen absorbers, which decrease the germination rate. Seed stock can be frozen, however.


Quinoa and amaranth also share similar nutritional value. One cup of either cooked grain contains 8-9 grams of protein. That’s 17 percent of a woman’s daily needs and 14 percent of a man’s. They have 3-4 grams of fat. Quinoa has about 220 calories per cooked cup and amaranth offers 250 calories. For comparison, oatmeal has about 150 and barley offers 190. Corn always wins with the grains, since a cup of cook corn has about 600 calories and 12-20 grams of protein. Quinoa and amaranth also both offer 5 grams of fiber, which can be lacking in some survival diets.

Beyond the grains, quinoa and amaranth have edible leaves. Amaranth’s heat preferences means that as other greens are wilting away and bolting, its leaves are just plumping up. To avoid stunting grain growth, no more than one-tenth the leaves should be harvested at any one time and heavy leaf harvest should wait until the plants are at least two to three feet tall. The leaves can be treated like any mustard, but once summer’s growth is full, they’ll be more palatable when treated like cooked spinach: lightly sautéed or wilted, or boiled. Tender new leaves near the top of each plant can be used raw in salads.

The seeds can be ground as flour to replace wheat or parboiled and added to flour for whole grain breads. They can replace any grain in a granola mix or bar, but they really shine when consumed as breakfast cereal or a side dish. The internet is full of recipes for quinoa, and pretty much anything done with quinoa can be done with amaranth.

Darker amaranth seeds tend to be a little grittier than the paler yellow and white seeds. In both quinoa and amaranth, the darker seeds are a little stronger and a little nuttier as well. Both can replace brown rice, spelt, or barley in soups and other recipes, but neither has to cook as long as those grains.

Other Grain Alternatives

There are a wide variety of grains. Amaranth and quinoa fold into suburban life because they simply look like ornamental grasses and they’re easy to grow in many conditions, providing a small-scale landowner or renter with a sustainable grain border or island of tall stalks and stunning flower heads. Their ease in processing and relatively few pests and diseases can make them a backup for homesteaders as well. Due to the low nitrogen and water requirements of both and the two climates they represent, quinoa and amaranth offer the potential for almost everyone to produce at least some of their own grains and increase the variety of grains they consume.

Last modified on Monday, 23 September 2013 19:01
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