Amaranth, Pigweed, Quelite

Amaranthus spp.
Amaranthaceae (Amaranth Family)

Several species of amaranth contributed both seeds and greens to the diet of Native Americans throughout most of North and Middle America. There are about two dozen species of wild-type amaranth growing in Texas, and at least seven species grow in the South Texas Plains. Each amaranth plant can produce hundreds or even thousands of small, seed-like fruits called achenes, and the foliage is rich in vitamins and other nutrients. Although it does not refer directly to the South Texas Plains, the ethnographic literature from the Americas is so rich that there can be little doubt that the amaranths were used by the Indians of this region.

Three species of amaranth were domesticated in the Americas, and many groups in the region of northern Mexico as well as the Hohokam of southern Arizona grew domesticated amaranths. Native Americans cultivated amaranth in central North America, throughout Mexico and in South America. Amaranthus hypochondriacus was noted in 1500 year-old deposits at Tehuacan in southern Mexico (Puebla), and Amaranthus cruentus has been recovered from older levels in the same region. The Spanish observed that the Aztec cultivated Amaranthus hypochondriacus on a massive scale. Seeds of the same species have been identified in a cache located in a rockshelter in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas. Archeologists have recovered evidence of domesticated amaranth from numerous prehistoric settlements of a culture they have named the Hohokam in southern Arizona. Both species, as well as other amaranths, remain in cultivation today in many areas of Mexico, and the seeds are available from seed warehouses for garden plantings.

Archeology. Amaranth seeds have not yet been positively identified from archeological sites in the South Texas Plains, but seeds that may be amaranth have been noted from an an archeological site in Maverick County (41MV164), as well as the Hinojosa Site (41JW8) near Alice in Jim Wells County. Chenopod and amaranth seeds are somewhat similar, and when they have been exposed to extreme heat to the point of charring, the surface sculpture of the fruit coat and other anatomical details are altered, making identification to the level of genus difficult. For this reason botanists identifying plant remains from archeological sites often refer to these heat-altered specimens as cheno-am seeds. Occasionally, as in the case of the seeds from the Hinojosa site, the original condition of the specimens may be sufficiently preserved to make a positive identification to the genus level.

Food Uses. The leaves are an excellent source of calcium, iron and folic acid. Amaranth seeds contain an important suite of amino acids, the building blocks for the synthesis of protein. The amino acid lysine is much more abundant in both amaranths and chenopods than it is in the cereals (wheat, oats, and maize). About 3.5 oz of amaranth seeds provide 15% of the recommended daily allowance of calcium, 76% of the iron, and over 25% of the folic acid recommended in diets today. Flour made from amaranth seeds would have been a critical food source in diets that lack protein rich foods.

Many species of wild or undomesticated amaranth were utilized for food. Most commonly the entire plant or the tender leaves of young plants were steamed or boiled. The cooked mass was eaten separately or consumed with other foods. Some groups, including the Yuma, the Mojave, and the Cocopa, cooked the greens, rolled them into a ball, dried them, and stored them for the winter. The Pima ate the greens with pinole flour made from roasted corn, or as a side dish. The Papago consumed greens at the beginning of the summer monsoon, when the leaves were young and tender. The Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache ate the leaves without further processing or cooked them with green chile and meat or animal bones.

The Tarahumara continue to utilize amaranth, especially Amaranthus retroflexus, and along with other small leafy annuals, they are an integral part of the subsistence agriculture ecosystem. These greens sprout quickly in agricultural fields and provide calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin C throughout the growing season. They are readily accessible, and annual preparation of the fields renders them an ideal habitat for the rapid growth of a few weedy species, most of which are included in the Tarahumara diet. The Tarahumara gathered the greens during a point in the growth cycle when the nutrients in the plants peaked. The greens utilized in the Tarahumara fields also included species of Chenopodium and Portulaca, both of which are commonly recovered from prehistoric archeological sites in the desert Southwest. These are all pioneer species, plants which flourish in disturbed soils such as agricultural fields and around human settlements, and they were a convenient source of vitamins and other critical nutrients.

Ripe amaranth seeds were usually harvested by shaking the heads into a basket or threshing the seed heads and beating them over a blanket using a stick. Sun drying or parching was a common treatment. Parching not only drives moisture out of the seeds, it also kills insects or eggs harvested with the seedheads, thereby reducing insect damage during storage. Seeds with less moisture are much easier to grind with a mano and metate because they don't tend to stick to the grinding surfaces. The Papago winnowed the seeds into baskets, parched them, and ground them into flour. The western Apache made flour from the seeds and baked it into flatcakes. The Paiute collected and ground amaranth seed into flour, making it into bread or a mush.

Medicinal Uses. There are only a few references to Native American medicinal use of amaranth; most of them based on observations of the Cherokee. The Cherokee utilized amaranth foliage to reduce hemorrhaging, reduce diarrhea, and to treat ulcerated wound. In fact, a classic 19th-century work of herbal/eclectic medicine, King's American Dispensatory, lists Amaranthus hypochondriacus as an astringent, which is a substance that constricts animal tissues, thus tending to close pores or blood vessels.


Buskirk, Winfred
1986 The Western Apache: Living with the Land Before 1950. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman.

Bye, Robert A., Jr.
1981 Quelites -- Ethnoecology of Edible Greens -- Past, Present, and Future. Journal of Ethnobiology 1:109-123.

Castetter, Edward. and Willis Bell
1951 Yuman Indian Agriculture. University of New Mexico Press. Albuquerque.

Castetter E. F., and Morris Opler
1936 The Ethnobiology of the Chiricahua and Mescalero Apache. A. The Use of Plants for Foods, Beverages, and Narcotics. Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest. Vol. III. The University of New Mexico Bulletin, Biological Series 4(5). Albuquerque.

Castetter E. F., and R. Underhill
1935 The Ethnobiology of the Papago Indians. Ethnobiological Studies in the American Southwest. Vol. II. The University of New Mexico Bulletin, Biological Series 4(3). Albuquerque.

Curtin L. S. M.
1984 By the Prophet of the Earth: Ethnobotany of the Pima. Reprint of book published by San Vicente Foundation [1949]. University of Arizona Press. Tucson.

Dering, J. Phil
2005 Plant Remains from 41MV164. Unpublished ms. Submitted to GTI, Inc. Austin.

Felter, Harvey Wickes and John Uri Lloyd
1898 King's American Dispensatory. Ohio Valley Co. Cincinnati, Ohio. Scanned version Henrietta Kress, 1999-2006. Accessed August 8, 2006.

Fritz, Gayle J.
1984 Identification of Cultigen Amaranth and Chenopod From Rockshelter Sites in Northwest Arkansas. American Antiquity 49(3):558-572.

Gasser. R. and S. Kwiatkowski
1991 Food for Thought: Recognizing Patterns in Hohokam Subsistence. In Exploring the Hohokam: Prehistoric Desert Peoples of the American Southwest, edited by G. J. Gumerman, pp. 417-459.

Hamel, Paul B. and Mary U. Chiltoskey
1975 Cherokee Plants and Their Uses -- A 400 Year History. Sylva, N.C. Herald Publishing Co.

Palmer, E.
1871 Food Plants of the North American Indians. USDA Report to the Commissioner of Agriculture for 1870, pp. 404-428. U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C.

Reagan, Albert D.
1928 Plants Used by the White Mountain Apache Indians of Arizona. The Wisconsin Archeologist 8:143-161

Sauer, J.D.
1967 The Grain Amaranths and Their Relative: A Revised Tasonomic and Geographic Survey. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 54:103-137.

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photo of a bison and calf
Amaranthus retroflexus. Photo courtesy of Epidemie.
photo of a bison
Flower head on plant of Amaranthus retroflexus. Photo courtesy of Epidemie.