Its leaves taste like spinach, its seeds are a nutritious cereal grain substitute, and its flowers serve as a bold accent in the annual garden bed.
Yet it nearly became extinct half a millennium ago. This plant was one of the three pillars of the Aztec diet, along with corn and beans, but its seeds were also made into a dough that was shaped into likenesses of Aztec gods. The missionizing Spanish, upon witnessing the baking and eating of the idolatrous figurines, made haste to destroy every field they could find of the plant used to make the dough.
For several hundred years, cultivation of this plant for culinary purposes ceased.
Here and there, in Europe, it was grown as a garden curiosity. Only recently, where new crops have been sought that can subsist in harsh conditions, was this plant rediscovered as a food source. It is currently being evaluated as a staple crop for extensive cultivation in both tropical and desert areas throughout the world.
The plant to which I refer is Amaranthus (a = not; maranthus = dying or fading), a reference to the everlasting quality of its flowers, which persist for a year or longer in dry arrangements.
There are many ornamental Amaranthus species. The most prominent ones have foot-long, blood red, purple, pink or yellow woolly inflorescences that stand at the top of leafy stems that can grow 6 feet tall or more. Love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) is distinguished by drooping flower tassels, as opposed to the vertical types.
Amaranthus leaves will remind you very much of spinach, except they have three times the iron found in Popeye’s favorite food. Amaranthus seeds can be roasted, upon which they inflate, popcorn style. Milled seeds are turned into flat or puffy bread, high in protein and rich in calcium and iron.
A most attractive aspect of Amaranthus, whether you are a subsistence farmer or gardener, is its ease of cultivation. Just broadcast seeds over bare ground in late winter or early spring and you will see them germinate within two weeks. They will grow quickly enough into flowering plants and bloom nonstop into the fall.
Do not pick all the flowers for your arrangements. Let some go to seed and you will be rewarded the following spring with a self-sown crop of new plants.
Amaranthus tricolor is an ornamental species grown strictly for its variegated foliage.
Amaranthus culture provides insight into proper care of Celosia, an Amaranthus relative and one of the most irresistible annual flowers. Celosia is that gorgeous gem with red, purple, pink, orange or yellow flowers that are shaped like miniature Amaranthus plumes or as fasciated cockscombs.
No plant is more tempting in the nursery and no plant fails more regularly and miserably in the garden than Celosia. The reason for its quick garden demise is overwatering. In the manner of Amaranthus, it should not be soaked more than once a week and always with a soaker hose or drip irrigation.
However, if you want Celosia to really prosper, plant the giant types from seed as opposed to the smaller varieties that you see in 4-inch pots or six-packs. You will be impressed with their long flowering season and minimal water requirement.
One of the most versatile container plants to emerge in the last decade is a cycad appropriately named, on account of its toughness, cardboard palm. It has a tiny water requirement and will survive freezing temperatures, although leaves will burn at 28 degrees.
It is ideal as a patio container plant, enjoying both partial shade and bright light, and not growing to more than 4 feet tall, although its girth may eventually expand to 6 feet. It is a sturdy indoor plant as well where light exposure is excellent. Due to its slow rate of growth, it is also suitable for cultivation as a bonsai selection.
Cardboard palms (Zamia furfuracea) may be regarded as succulents when it comes to watering them. Let soil dry to a depth of two inches before applying water and, after water drains through, do not allow it to stand in a dish below as this can lead to root rot. Fertilize in early spring and late fall with a houseplant fertilizer product.
If you see some charming six-petaled white flowers poking up in shady spots this time of year, you are probably looking at white rain lily (Zephyranthes candida), one of an exclusive group of bulb plants that bloom in the fall. Even when not in bloom, its lustrous green and grasslike foliage, reaching 10 inches in height, will make you happy to have it in your garden. Situated in just the right spot, it will expand into a serious clump with the passage of time.
Tip of the week
Long-blooming lantanas, both bush and semi-trailing varieties, are easily trained into patio trees. Select a stout shoot from a 1-gallon specimen and remove all other shoots. Place a stake alongside the selected shoot and tie it in place. Encourage vertical growth by rubbing off side shoots as soon as they appear.
As the plant increases in size, you will want to transplant it into a 5-gallon container. You can keep it in this container by pruning its roots back when they begin to circle the inside of the container and by replacing the soil or, if you choose, plant it out in the garden.

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