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Amaranthus cruentus L. 1759 cv.
pronounced: am-ah-AN-thuss kroo-EN-tuss
(Amaranthaceae – the amaranth family)
common names: Red Amaranth, African Spinach
As early as 6,000 years ago, Amaranthus cruentus was domesticated as a pseudocereal (grain amaranth) in Central America from the weed Amaranthus hybridus. Escaped plants from cultivation also appear in the wild. Amaranthus cruentus is a widespread traditional vegetable in all countries of tropical Africa. It is the main leafy vegetable in Benin, Togo and Sierra Leone, and very important in many lowland areas such as southern Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya and Tanzania. It is also an important vegetable in the Indian subcontinent and the Caribbean. The Bangladesh type has big fleshy stems, that are eaten with the leaves. Amaranthus cruentus is grown as a leaf vegetable throughout South-East Asia, although to a lesser extent than Amaranthus tricolor. In Indonesia it is grown in mountain areas, where the climate is too cold for Amaranthus tricolor . Grain amaranth, a cultivar-group of Amaranthus cruentus, is traditionally grown as a cereal crop in Latin America. Since colonial times, it has been successfully introduced as a pseudocereal in India and Nepal, in mountain areas as well as at lower elevations, and it has become well-established as a popular food plant. Thinnings of young seedlings of the grain crop are frequently used as a vegetable. Grain amaranth is produced commercially in hot and dry areas of the USA, Argentina and China. Ornamental types of Amaranthus cruentus characterized by big bright red inflorescences, such as the plant pictured here growing in a Picnic Bay garden, can frequently be found in tropical and subtropical countries.
The stems of the plant are erect, green or reddish purple, 40 – 200 cm tall. The leaves have petioles from half as long as, to nearly equalling, the length of the blade; the blades are ovate-rhombic or ovate to broadly lanceolate, 3 – 15 by 1.5 – 10 cm (occasionally larger in robust plants), the margins entire. The inflorescences are terminal and axillary, erect, reflexed, or nodding, usually dark red, purple, or deep beet-red, less commonly almost green or greenish red, leafless at least distally, large and robust. The bracts are narrowly spathulate, 2 – 3 mm, equalling or slightly longer than the tepals, the apex short-spinescent. The pistillate flowers have 5 tepals and 3 stigmas; the staminate flowers are at the tips of the inflorescences, with 5 tepals and usually 5, though sometimes 4, stamens. The seeds are usually white or ivory, with reddish or yellowish tint, sometimes dark brown to dark reddish brown, 1.2 – 1.6 mm in diameter.
The seeds are used as a cereal grain. They are ground into flour, popped like popcorn, cooked into a porridge, or made into a confectionary called alegria. The leaves and tender stems are cut and cooked in water like spinach, or sometimes fried in oil, and mixed with meat or fish, cucurbit seeds and peanut. In arid regions, the leaves are dried and the leaf powder is used in sauces during the dry season. Also, the seeds can be germinated into nutritious sprouts.
A dye can be obtained from the large bright red inflorescences of the ornamental cultivars. There are also some medicinal uses: for constipation, fever, bleeding, anaemia and kidney complaints. In Senegal the roots are boiled with honey as a laxative for infants. In Ethiopia it is used as a tapeworm-expellant. In Sudan, ash from burning the stems is used as a wound dressing.
Information about medicinal qualities of plants, or about their use as medicines, is for interest only, and is not intended to be used as a guide for the treatment of medical conditions.
Photographs taken at Picnic Bay, 2011
Page last updated 5th October 2016