Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Happiness Plant

re-published from The Permaculture Activist 70:44-46 (Winter 2008-09)
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
— Milton, Paradise Lost (1667), iii. 353.
Some plants are so determined to feed us, and to be loved and be spread to the corners of the world, they are standing up to our nastiest agrochemicals and throwing candy at our feet.

David Holmgren says weeds are just misunderstood plants with values that we haven’t discovered.
“Militaristic thinking about weeds, whether motivated by ‘ecological morals’ or exploitative greed is counterproductive in understanding landscape. The real challenge of weeds is firstly to understand the processes of disturbance and degradation they are responding to and then how to harness their healing work for a rapid succession to a more advanced and productive state. These insights are much assisted by ‘seeing it from the weeds' point of view.’ Thus the field naturalist approach allows us to identify with any and all lifeforms independent of whether they are beautiful or ugly, rare or ubiquitous, useful or noxious, to help broaden our perspective and in the long term act more effectively in creating and managing cultivated ecosystems.”
In South Georgia, soybean, peanut, corn and cotton farmers used to plow their fields in the Spring to bury weeds. Then, after the crop was in, they would come back with a hoe or use a horse or mule-drawn row cultivator as their plants emerged, to keep down any weeds that grew from seed.

In the 1950s came herbicides and mechanized, no-till agriculture and the routine shifted. Weeds were sprayed before cotton was planted to give the cotton a head start. As pesticides became more sophisticated, they could be hand-sprayed at the base of the cotton plants to kill weeds without damaging the cotton. Then in the 1990s came Roundup Ready cotton, corn and soybeans, which meant machines could go through growing fields with heavy chemical applications of Roundup®, the Monsanto patented herbicide.

But weeds have been getting smarter. The wimpy little ones like poke, ragweed or milk thistle have retired from the field, leaving hardier cousins to stand and fight. One of the hardy pigweeds, Palmer amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri), has been making a name for itself in South Georgia, because it has evolved resistance to glyphostate, Roundup’s active ingredient. Agronomists say the overuse of glyphostate herbicides is to blame for the amaranth explosion. The plant had already evolved resistances to dinitroanilines and acetolactate synthase inhibitors, and farmers that kept using Roundup year after year, regardless of the warnings, had their fields completely taken over when Roundup Ready Amaranth appeared.

Palmer amaranth can grow as tall as 15 feet, although 6 feet is more common. Climate change is its best friend. It can continue to grow an inch a day even without water all summer, even when daily temperature tops 90°F (32°C). Its flowering tops put out half a million seeds per plant. One successful amaranth plant can seed an entire field for the following season. Full grown, the new superweed eats cotton picking machinery and spits out the metal parts.

Some Georgia farmers have been forced into bankruptcy and abandoned their farms. The new strain is spreading in every direction and has farmers and extension agents worried from South Carolina to West Texas. Even Monsanto has no recommended solution. But then, Monsanto doesn’t sell hoes.

The problem is that some farmers just can’t see the money for the weeds.

In the Mexican states of Guerrero, México, Michoacán, Morelos, Puebla, Tlaxcala, Oaxaca and Jalisco, and the Guatemalan departments of Guatemala, Chimaltenango and Alta Verapaz, Palmer amaranth seeds are dried, mixed with maguey honey and baked into a candy that is sold in the central markets. The toasted seeds are so valuable they bring four times more pesos per kilo than corn. A healthy mix of amino acids makes Palmer amaranth a complete protein, but it can also use its abundant lysine to complete the protein of maize.

It is not called pigweed in Mexico. In the hill villages of Puebla where Nahua culture still lives, it is called huautli or bledos, “feather.” Coras call it bé-be and Huicholes wa-ve. In Tlaxcala, its called alegría, “happiness.”

The alegría amaranth was used as both a cultivated food and a medicinal plant by American civilizations as far south as the Inca (where it is known as kiwicha in the Andes today) and as far back as 6000 years. An Aztec Codex tells of 4,000 tons of amaranth arriving in Tenochtitlán, the Aztec capitol, every year. The leaves were cooked as spinach and the seeds were ground for porridge or bread. An atoli drink was made from water and huautli flour and is still being sold in rural markets today. Huautli flour dough filled with steamed amaranth leaves was called by the Aztecs huauquillamalmaliztli. When fresh seeds are cooked they become gelatinous, lending themselves to a variety of recipes where a binder is desirable.

How does Palmer amaranth meet the Holmgren test? Well, for one thing it concentrates nitrates in its foliage, so soils that are overly nitrified from years of fertilizer abuse can be detoxified by planting Palmer amaranth and then harvesting the top growth. It is fast growing, so it can inhibit other, less desirable early emergents. It is hardy to zone 0 but frost tender. Both sexes can be found on the same plant so it finds it easy to set seed. Palmer amaranth does well in light (sandy), medium (loamy) and heavy (clay) soils and acid, neutral and basic (alkaline) soils, so it is not much use in diagnosing soil types. According to Plants for the Future, “all members of this genus photosynthesize by a more efficient method than most plants” suggesting it may be able to remove carbon from the atmosphere in hot, dry conditions after other plants have quit.

The Amaranth family, Amaranthaceae, contains about 160 genera and 2,400 species. Many of the species are halophytes, growing in salty soils. Its name comes from the Greek amarantos meaning “unwithering.” When it is not thumbing its nose at Roundup, this is a plant that can colonize deserts.

In Aesop's Fables (c. 600 BCE) it is written:
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.”
As a feedstock for cattle, Palmer amaranth is comparable to maize. When a cornfield “contaminated” with amaranth is harvested for silage and fed to cattle, the protein content is better than corn alone, because of the amino acid spread. In tests of fields in Kansas, significant differences were observed in digestibility of corn plus amaranth versus corn forage alone. Most Amaranthus species have 30% higher protein value than other cereals, such as rice, wheat flour, oats and rye.

From the standpoint of human nutrition, Palmer amaranth has few equals.

Amino Acids in grams per cup
Tryptophan 0.353
Threonine 1.088
Isoleucine 1.135
Leucine 1.714
Lysine 1.457
Methionine 0.441
Cystine 0.372
Phenylalanine 1.057
Tyrosine 0.642
Valine 1.324
Arginine 2.067
Histidine 0.759
Alanine 1.558
Aspartic acid 2.459
Glutamic acid 4.405
Glycine 3.190
Proline 1.361
Serine 2.239

Palmer amaranth has 4.2 mg Vitamin C per 100 grams and similarly healthy doses of riboflavin, niacin, pantothenic acid, Vitamin B-6, folate, and Vitamin E. It is high in calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, zinc, iron and manganese, and low in sodium, with zero cholesterol. In fact, it may lower cholesterol because of its stanols and squalene content. It is 14 percent protein, 66 percent carbohydrate, and 7 percent fatty acids, primarily polyunsaturated. Several studies have shown amaranth seed oil useful for the treatment of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Regular consumption reduces blood pressure and improves some immune system functions.

So with all this going for Palmer amaranth, why should it be putting farmers out of business?

Here is a recipe the Tlaxcalans use for Alegría candy:

Toasted Amaranth Bar

3 cups fresh or dried amaranth seeds
4 tablespoons of honey
a few drops of lemon juice

Clean (with a sieve) the seeds. For dried seeds, it is necessary to partially rehydrate them first (one cup of water for three kilograms of seeds is enough) and then drain and leave in the sun for a few hours, shaking or stirring as needed to dry equally. Toast the seeds on a preheated Mexican comal or with an iron skillet if you don’t have a comal, moving the seeds as they heat with a small brush or fork until they burst and turn white. Sieve again to remove burnt seeds and skins.

Combine the honey and lemon juice in a small saucepan and gradually warm the liquid over a reduced flame, making sure it is neither too thick nor too thin. Too thin and the candy will fall apart; too thick and the candy will crack. Needless to say, this may require practice. Humidity in the air can also make it fall apart too easily.

Use a molinillo (a wooden Mexican chocolate whisk) or a wooden spoon to blend the toasted amaranth with the honey mixture, pour over a cool table or rolling board and roll flat with a rolling pin until it becomes compact. Let stand until cool, and then cut it into pieces with a wet knife before it sets.

The finished candy can be into squares, rectangles, cylinders, or roll it into small rolls and balls. Be careful with this. When the Spanish friars saw the Aztecs forming alegría into the shapes of their gods and then cutting them up and eating them, they called it blasphemous idolatry (considering the Catholic communion) and banned both eating and growing amaranth in the first part of the 17th Century. Fortunately, the practice just went underground, bringing us with a rich cuisine of atole, pinole, tamales, chuales, helados and sorbets across the centuries.


Arizona Wild Flowers Wildflower Pictures And Photos

Culpepper et al, Glyphosate-resistant Palmer amaranth (
Amaranthus palmeri) confirmed in Georgia. Weed Science 54: 620-626 (2006).

Gonor KV, et al, The influence of a diet with including amaranth oil on antioxidant and immune status in patients with ischemic heart disease and hyperlipoproteidemia, Vopr Pitan 75(6):30-3 (2006).

Holmgren, D., An eclectic approach to the skills of reading landscape and their application to permaculture consultancy, in
David Holmgren: Collected Writings 1978-2000.

Itúrbide, G.A. and M. Gispert, Grain Amaranths, in Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective (1994: J.E. Hernándo Bermejo and J. León (eds.).
Plant Production and Protection Series No. 26. FAO, Rome, Italy) p. 93-101.

Massinga, R. A. and R. S. Currie, Impact of Palmer Amaranth (
Amaranthus palmeri) on Corn (Zea mays) Grain Yield and Yield and Quality of Forage, Weed Technology 16:3:532–536 (July 2002).

Tucker, J.B., Amaranth: The Once and Future Crop,
BioScience, 36:1: 9-13 (Jan 1986).

Zaleski, G., Worst pest since the weevil striking at cotton farmers, Orangeburg S.C. Times Democrat, August 11, 2008.


Albert Bates is a permaculture and appropriate technology instructor at the Ecovillage Training Center ( in Summertown,Tennessee and in rural Mexico and Belize. He will next be teaching a full PDC at the Maya Mountain Research Center in Belize in March 2009. His latest book,
The Post-Petroleum Survival Guide and Cookbook: Recipes for Changing Times, is available in English and Italian.


Artemisa's Granddaughter said...

Hi, Albert! I recently posted a link to this post to a Permaculture group on Multiply. If you'd like to see the comments, go to:

It is a great post. Thanks!

Unknown said...

If the plant is resistant to Roundup, maybe the plant would also be helpful to detoxify Roundup from the human body.

Jan Lundberg said...

In 2014 I discovered on Spetses my favorite horta they call vlita, but I didn't know what it was exactly. Then in my garden my landlord pointed it out: amaranth! There's a relatively short season for its tender leaves.
So good to know more about the plant. Thanks for this extremely useful and well written article.

ken sasucke said...

curious how to harvest this grain,silage would be so simple,perhaps as a frement.




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