Who named these plants? Some emo botanist who'd just been romantically trashed? A winged cherub-turned-serial killer? Sure, its long drooping magenta stalks do make love lies bleeding look like they were at the wrong end of a garden fork, or guest-starred in an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon, but come on. Nobody wants to think of their garden being the scene of either an emotional crisis or physical assault.
Especially because Amaranthus caudatus is a gorgeous, unusual plant that could have been named something pleasant, like "pinot keeps pouring."
While the association with blood does jibe well with the red varieties, there are some A. caudatus types with gold or fuschia flowers. That's why there are several other common names for A. caudatus, including tassel flower, pendant amaranth, and foxtail amaranth. Amaranthus is derived from the Greek word for "unfading," while caudatus means "tail," a nod to the long, ropelike, drooping stalks.
History and Origins
Do you remember Floam? If you're parents, you know what we're talking about: that colorful, polystyrene bead-infused goo kids play with the same way some of us grew up with Play-Doh. Well, long before styrofoam came along, Aztecs sculpted effigies of the war god Huitzilopochtli, the Hummingbird of the South (and worst war god spirit animal ever) with amaranth grains and honey. At the end of their worship rituals, they'd break up and eat the statues.
Catholic Spanish conquistadors didn't much approve of this pagan nonsense, burning Aztec amaranth crops and banning any use of the grain. "In a few remote areas, small amounts of amaranth survived," according to Ancient Grains. "For a while, it was primarily used to make a traditional sweet called alegria." Amaranth is native to higher altitudes in Mexico, South America, and Central America, with many different species having been in cultivation for at least 6,500 years. That is, of course, until Cortez and his bullies showed up and ruined things.
Still, renegade amaranth aficionados maintained the plant's role in the Mexican food culture until present day. George Mateljan, nutrition guru and the author of The World's Healthiest Foods, claims to have "rediscovered" amaranth, introducing it into the United States in the 1970s. (By using the term "rediscovered," he really meant "culturally appropriated," but in this case, we'll let it slide.)
While we know amaranth has been around in the New World for thousands of years, it's also reportedly native to Africa and India. Convergent evolution? Carried overseas by birds thousands of years ago? Or maybe it's been around since the Mesozoic area when all the continents were rafted up like boats at Lake Havasu on Spring Break.
Love Lies Bleeding...In Your Kitchen
Amaranthus caudatus is closely related to the production amaranth grain you'll find in your local natural foods store. There are about 60 species of amaranth, and the leaves and seeds from all are edible. As Plants for a Future advises, nitrates—which are associated with stomach cancer and blue babies (cyanotic, not Smurf) can concentrate in all members of the genus' leaves and seeds when it's grown in soil with excessive levels of nitrogen. "It is inadvisable, therefore," PFAF warns in what we imagine to be a posh English accent, "to eat this plant if it is grown inorganically." They suggest these nitrate hazards are highest in amaranth crops grown with chemical fertilizers.
On the other hand, one study indicates nitrates from orally-administered amaranth extract actually benefit performance athletes. Another study had similar findings based on green leafy vegetables related to amaranth, which are related to brassicas.
So unless you're burying bodies in your garden or deluging your beds with off-the-shelf synthetic or organic fertilizer, you shouldn't worry about toxicity. Amaranth and, specifically, love lies bleeding is family and pet safe, and worth experimenting with in the kitchen. It's similar to quinoa in its preparation and flavor; you'll need to soak it overnight and thoroughly rinse it to get rid of the saponins and tannins, which cause that bitter, soapy flavor.
Amaranth seeds, which contain complete proteins, are too tiny to be milled into flour, so they're typically eaten whole. They have a mild, nutty flavor similar to sesame seeds. The cooked leaves are nutrient-dense, high in manganese, potassium, folate, calcium, and vitamins A and C. They're also a good source of Omega-6 fatty acids.
Sautéing, steaming, or stir-frying the leaves the same as you would spinach, kale, or collards brings out their flavor without compromising nutrition. Eating love lies bleeding or other amaranth species raw isn't exactly a pleasant experience, and clearly, there's a question about whether nitrates are all that good for you in unmeasured quantities.
Here are a few recipes to get you acquainted with cooking love lies bleeding and other amaranth varieties:
- Amaranth Leaves in Coconut Milk: Since we assume you already know how to stir-fry greens, we'll throw this one at you for fun.
- Popped amaranth: This is the foundation for a lot of gluten-free yummies.
- Alegria: Amaranth and honey candy tastes much like sesame crackers. You can substitute popped amaranth if you'd like.
- Amaranth breakfast porridge: An excellent recipe that explains the basics of cooking with amaranth seeds.
If you're into urban foraging, you'll notice pigweed looks a lot like amaranth. That's because it is! There are several species that are generally grouped under the common name "pigweed" or "green amaranth," and they have the same nutritional qualities. Cook them up just as you would any other variety.
Love Lies Bleeding...All Over Your Garden
Now that we know you can eat it, play with it, and offend 15th century Catholics with it, it's time to find out how love lies bleeding will look in your garden. Unlike most other amaranth species, love lies bleeding's 1-1/2' flower stalks flop over in cascades of thousands of bright, tiny, non-petaled flowers. It's a midsummer-blooming plant, with blooms first appearing by mid-July and then winding down early fall. But even as the stalks begin to grow, they show their colors; it's fun to watch those stalks elongate over time. At any point in the bloom season, they're a spectacular ornamental.
Amaranthus caudatus' oval, yellow-green leaves can grow to 6" long. The plants themselves have an upright growing habit, and they're best planted in clusters or rows for the best effect. Some miniature varieties do well in containers, particularly hanging baskets. Standard varieties, though, look best as backdrop plants.
Choosing a Spot
As we've mentioned, love lies bleeding is a kissing cousin to pigweed...which means it will grow almost anywhere there's full sun. You will want to grab a shovel and dig in some compost if your soil is too compacted, and to give depleted soil a bit of a boost and better soil retention. A. caudatus has a broad soil tolerance as long as it's well-drained. Aim for a pH of 6.0 to 7.5.
Amaranth needs full sun and sun-warmed soil to thrive. Love lies bleeding is drought-resistant once it gets established, but beds and seedlings should remain moist until they get underway. While the plants have been known to go for a month without water, you'll have the best foliage and flower sprays if you irrigate established plants weekly through the peak summer heat.
Love lies bleeding is grown as a frost-tender annual in zones 4 through 11, doing best in zones 6 and higher. Fall frost helps to ripen the seeds, but it kills the foliage.
- Plant Height: Up to 6 feet tall; usually 2 to 5 feet.
- Plant Width: 1.5 to 2.5-foot spread.
- Pests & Diseases: Aphids, Japanese beetles, snails, slugs. In rare cases, leaf spot, and root rot.
- Maintenance: Staking may be required for overly tall plants in unsheltered areas.
Love lies bleeding attracts predatory wasps and beetles, butterflies, ladybugs, honeybees, and bumblebees. Hummingbirds might do a fly-by now and again, too...which may explain the Aztec's association between the plant and the bird. (We're still chuckling about the whole war god hummingbird thing.)
Growing Love Lies Bleeding from Seed
It takes 40 to 50 days for Amaranthus caudatus to go from sprout to seed, so if you live in short-season zones, you might want to give your plants a jump on the season by starting them indoors. Be sure to keep your seed pots or trays in a sunny window or under lights, as they need sunlight to germinate.
Since members of the amaranth genus readily self-seed, you won't have much trouble getting them underway. They germinate when the soil is consistently at daytime temperatures of 70°F, and most successful gardeners tend to hold off until two weeks after the first frost before seeding or transplanting outdoors.
- When to Plant Indoors: 6 to 8 weeks prior to your last spring frost.
- Seed Depth: Surface sow. Don't cover the seeds, but gently press them into or scatter them over the soil.
- Seed Spacing: Plant or thin 18" apart.
- Days to Germination: 7 to 10 days at 70°F.
When growing love lies bleeding from seed, plant the seeds in fine, damp, weed-free topsoil. Water with your spray head's mist setting or a hand or spray bottle to prevent the seeds from drilling below the surface.
Harvesting Love Lies Bleeding
Once your plants have experienced their first hard frost, cut off the stalks and hang them upside-down to finish drying. For just a few stalks, tie them to a dowel across a large, clean bucket (making sure there's good air circulation). Once they're dry, beat them against the inside of the bucket, or roll the stalks between your hands to remove the seeds.
If you went overboard and have a good crop of plants, you might want to line a large cardboard box with a tarp or garbage bag to catch and contain the seeds.
You'll have bits of dried stems and foliage in the mix; try gently shaking the seeds in a casserole dish or tray while blowing them with a hair dryer on a low setting. Too high and you'll have a mess on your hands. Store the seeds the same as you would with grains.
By the way, fresh love lies bleeding sprays make a good cut flower for up to five days after cutting.