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Amaranth does not refer to one single plant. Rather, Amaranthus is a wide genus comprised of around 60 different species, most of which are summer annuals. This genus is a member of Amaranthaceae, the Amaranth family. Spinach and sugar beets are also members of this family. Members of the Amaranthus genus are found on every continent except Antarctica.

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1. Build muscle without meat, gluten or heart disease

One of several edible parts of the plant, amaranth seeds are nutritious and versatile. Though unrelated to true grains like wheat, corn, and rice, amaranth seeds serve a culinarily similar purpose. Amaranth is packed with protein, with a content of up to 30 percent more than other grains. Because of amaranth’s abundance of the essential amino acid lysine, amaranth seed is considered to be a complete protein. Amaranth could serve as a vital component of any muscle building diet, particularly for those who choose not to acquire their protein from animal sources. For those who suffer from celiac disease, amaranth provides a tasty and nutritious gluten-free grain alternative. Finally, oil in the seeds has been shown to lower bad cholesterol levels in humans, earning amaranth a prominent place in a heart-healthy diet.

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2. Aztec ritual

A proper history of amaranth would fill an entire book (or several). However, a notable chapter in this story is that of the relationship the Aztecs had with amaranth. Known as huauhtli, amaranth grains provided much of the calorific and nutritious fuel for the Aztec Triple Alliance and its domination of Mesoamerica. Amaranth was also important in Aztec rituals and celebrations. During the month of Panquetzaliztli (December 7th to December 26th), a statue of the god Huitzilopochtli would be built out of amaranth seeds and honey. After the Spanish conquest, the cultivation of amaranth was outlawed, thought it never truly disappeared. Popped amaranth is still eaten as a snack in Mexico and the plant remains an important symbol of indigenous Mexican culture.

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3. Landscape design and bioremediation

The love-lies-bleeding variety of amaranth is a popular ornamental, but there are dozens of other amaranth varieties that are also stunning additions to a garden or landscape. Perhaps more intriguing is amaranth’s potential as a biological tool to remove lead from soil. Spinach is also known for its ability to rehabilitate lead-ridden soil. University of Southern Maine scientists report that after planting spinach on the toxic soil for three months, the lead level dropped 200 ppm. It is possible that amaranth, related to spinach, may possess the same bioremediating ability. If so, it could prove a resilient, self-seeding tool to clean contaminated soils. American Dreamers might do well to consider replacing their green grass lawns with amazing amaranth instead.

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4. Alcohol

As so many good things seem to, amaranth also comes in alcoholic form. I have been interested in amaranth and home brewing for years, so it was only a matter of time before I put these two together. Amaranth as the primary grain in a brew seemed like a fabulous idea. Thanks to RyanBrews, I tracked down a recipe for an Amaranth Belgian Table Ale. The verdict? Delicious! As with most homebrews, its flavor greatly improved after several weeks, a product of aging in the bottle. I highly recommend homebrewers of all levels, even aspiring, to give this beer a try. Alternatively for the more ambitious, brewing a gluten-free, all-amaranth beer might be a valuable venture.

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5. Pay homage to a classic character

The resemblance between a mature amaranth flower and Sideshow Bob of the Simpsons is uncanny. Next Halloween, consider carving a Sideshow Bob Jack O’Lantern, topped off with your autumn amaranth harvest. Each of the amaranth’s dreads contain dozens of seeds, which keeps the plant coming back to your garden year after year.

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6. Finally, Food

Wild varieties of amaranth appear during the summer months in temperate climates and are often viewed as weeds. Cultivated amaranth maintains its wild hardiness, which allows for easy propagation and care of the plant. This should encourage those who fear their thumb is far from green. Red leaf amaranth can be grown as a salad green in traditional garden beds. The leaves are nutritionally and culinarily equivalent to those of spinach, a relative of amaranth. Space-saving gardeners can plant beans, sweet peas, or other vining vegetables at the base of the quickly growing and sturdy amaranth stalk. With its edible seeds, leaves, and roots, amaranth is a popular ingredient for cultures around the world. Stay tuned for our food-focused follow-up that explores amaranth recipes and the plant’s place in the palate.

Images via Shutterstock (1,2,3,4,5), Dwight Sipler/Wikimedia and Greg Beach for Inhabitat