Experts tackle readers’ garden questions.
Q: Could you please tell me what this is? I believe it was in a packet of wildflower seeds.
Kristin Watson, Citrus Heights
Bee garden writer Debbie Arrington: That’s an amaranth, an ancient Central and South American grain with a distinctive red feathery head. Several varieties can get fairly big (4 to 8 feet tall). Most likely your mystery plant is Amaranthus caudatus, which has the evocative nickname Love Lies Bleeding. It’s also known as Tassel Flower and Foxtail Amaranth.
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Amaranth seeds and leaves are edible. As a food source, this pretty tropical plant became a staple for Aztecs, Incas and other early Americans and was highly valued. Amaranth’s Aztec name means “king seed” and it was regarded as “grain of the gods.” Archaeologists have found seeds in tombs dating back more than 1,500 years.
Because the Aztecs used amaranth in religious ceremonies, Spanish conquistadors banned amaranth and made its cultivation a capital offense. But the Victorians, who loved to collect exotic plants, liked its unusual flowers and brought amaranth back as a popular garden addition. They also gave Love Lies Bleeding its nickname. (In the Victorian language of flowers, amaranth represents hopeless love.)
As a grain, amaranth is regaining popularity again; it’s highly nutritious, a source of protein and gluten-free.
Because it’s not frost hardy, amaranth is usually grown as an annual in our area. Although it’s attractive, amaranth can be very invasive. Each flowerhead can produce more than 100,000 seeds.
The Bee’s Debbie Arrington is a consulting rosarian and lifelong organic gardener.
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