Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tall in the Saddle

or Worlds Unto Themselves

'Kerala Red' Amaranth

The south winds are the worst.  The garden is fairly well protected from our prevailing northwesterlies, but there isn't much shelter for it to the south.  Last Thursday night a windstorm came through, the kind that bends the upper branches of the trees at right angles and has all your perennials leaning to starboard for a day or so.  It was a night of sudden thuds and thumps, of wondering idly whose patio furniture was going to be where by morning.

The raised microgarden took a hit, more than the plants at ground level.  I had just planted carrot seeds—lightweight, insubstantial, surface-sown carrot seeds—and have no idea whose yard they're gracing now.  Judging by where they've begun to sprout, the arugula seeds drifted up against the amaranth on the microgarden's north end before finding safe harbor; perhaps the carrots have done the same.  The tomatillo plants, which are just now setting on nicely, were pushed over into the amaranth, too, and some are still leaning heavily against it.  Without its support, they might have blown over altogether.  I've almost begun to think of amaranth as my right-hand man in the garden—I don't know what I would do without it.

Not that it fared particularly well.  Wind is its Achilles heel, and its oldest, windward leaves are looking extra shreddy and battered now.  It's been having its own private little autumn for about six weeks anyway; it has flowered and set seed and is nearing the end of its life span.  Despite all that, despite age and weather, it's still sitting tall in the saddle, its stems like laser beams keeping the north end of the patio alight, its younger, leeward leaves luminescent in the sun.  It's still feeding the goldfinches (and I do wish they'd let me get a photograph).  When I pulled the spent summer veggies last week, two mantises emerged from the amaranth's shelter to protest, one of them pawing at the air with a front leg, for all the world like a dog, if a dog were green and angular and thought mostly "Oy!"

I begin to understand why the Aztecs gave amaranth a central role in their most important ceremonies, why Montezuma demanded it as tribute, why the Spanish banned the growing or eating of it after the conquest:  it's so useful, and on so many levels, that you begin to revere it.  It gives shelter to beneficial insects, feeds the birds, offers support to weaker plants, thrives in the heat of summer.  I'm impressed and never even got around to eating it this year, which was, after all, the whole point of planting it.  Had I spent the summer tossing together quick sautés of the leaves like I usually do (olive oil and onion, a little lemon and chipotle chile powder), I might feel impelled to salute.

"Tall in the saddle" is the way you sit when you've done yourself proud. Online definitions vary, but they all hover in the vicinity of staunch, resolute, and heroic. 

I don't really think that amaranth is heroic, you know.  It's a plant, growing the way its genes have told it to.  But some plants need care and fussing and nurturing before they'll reward you with a bloom or a fruit; some cheerfully do what you ask and no more.  Some, though, astonish you by doing more than you ever expected when you planted them, thinking one-dimensionally about summer greens.  From seeds as tiny as grains of sand they become worlds unto themselves, worlds of shelter and nourishment and strength, useful to the lives that depend on them even when they're ready to hand the baton to next summer's seeds, to fade back into the soil.

They do themselves proud.


  1. I have one or two amaranth plants that are doing nicely in my parents backyard. They've been a my favourite plant this year just for their growth, like thai basil last year. I've been trying to figure out how to harvest the seeds though...

  2. I have never grown amaranth, but I do love plants that do themselves proud. So many plants this year didn't do so well. The ones that have survived can sit tall in the saddle!

  3. Mud! Nice to see you pop up again. You have to love those plants with a high excitement-to-effort ratio. I've never tried to harvest the seeds but came across something online last week that recommended cutting the whole seed head and suspending it above a tarp or inside a paper bag and waiting for the seeds just to fall out. I have no idea whether it works!

    Holley, especially at this time of year--and especially after the summer weather you've had!--you're aware of just what troupers some of them are.

  4. I have never grown amaranth, but it has been on my list for years...just have not gotten around to it. I am so glad the winds were not too destructive.

  5. Still debating whether my self sown wild 'amaranth' is edible.

  6. I didn't know the leaves could be eaten as greens. Amaranth grains are sold in my local health food store as a healthy carb. I imagine that you would need to grow quite a few plants to get just a handful of grains.

  7. I love the color of it. I had no idea it was so bright and vital looking.



  8. What a wonderful plant. I have never considered growing it but it is intriguing. I was successful with growing my green chiles this year and have roasted a couple of dozen so maybe it would be fun to try amaranth just for the gorgeous red leaves of fall...

  9. The food amaranth looks so majestic compared to the amaranth weeds that I have in my yard. Not so pretty and a bear to pull out.

  10. Michelle, I’d never grown amaranth or been interested in it until moving here. Almost all the more traditional leafy vegetables bolt somewhere around mid-May, though, just when amaranth gets going. Baker’s Creek has a great variety of seeds, if you’re interested.

    Diana, some risks are maybe not worth taking…

    b-a-g, according to the seed catalog, some of the varieties can produce a pound of seeds per plant, but I have my doubts. Still, they’re more prolific than you’d think. Just running your hand lightly through a flower head can maybe halfway fill it up with seeds.

  11. Elaine, aren't those colors beautiful? I have some orange ones growing, too, but they’re not nearly as impressive—the orange is more brownish than I thought it would be.

    Donna, I’m so glad the green chiles came through for you! I have some in the fridge waiting to be roasted even now. The amaranth flowers aren’t my favorite, but I do love the leaves and stems. When your leafy greens can be red, so much the better.

    GirlSprout, the stickery seed heads on the weedy ones are such a nuisance. One of my neighbors has been carefully cherishing a few of them all summer in his flower beds, not knowing what they were and wanting to find out the hard way.

  12. Blimey, I've never even heard of amaranth - sigh. There's so much to learn. Did you find your carrots? I can almost see you knocking on neighbours' doors, sadly asking if they possibly might have ....

    And a preying mantis, shaking it's fist and saying 'Oy' is exactly what I expect of a preying mantis. It's in their genes.


  13. Dave, ha! I'll have to make a flyer with a picture of the seeds on it and post it on the neighborhood telephone poles. "If found, please call... No questions asked."