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Early, D.K. 1990. Amaranth production in Mexico and Peru. p. 140-142. In: J. Janick and J.E. Simon (eds.), Advances in new crops. Timber Press, Portland, OR.

Amaranth Production in Mexico and Peru*

Daniel K. Early


  1. HISTORY
  2. TECHNIQUES OF CULTIVATION
    1. Tropical Zones
    2. Temperate Zones
  3. TRADITIONAL USES
  4. CONCLUSIONS
  5. REFERENCES
  6. Fig. 1
  7. Fig. 2

Amaranth (Amaranthus spp.) (Sauer 1950) is a plant with high protein seed which offers excellent possibilities for improving human nutrition, especially in Third World countries (National Research Council 1984, Early 1985).

HISTORY

Amaranth was eaten by hunter-gatherers in both North and South America before the domestication of agriculture (Sauer 1967). In Mexico, amaranth was domesticated circa 5,000 BC along with maize, beans, and gourds (MacNeish 1970). The plant was domesticated independently in the Andes (Sauer 1967). There was relatively little cultural contact between these two great centers of civilization and each developed techniques of cultivation and uses of amaranth independently. Similar cultivation methods and uses in both regions indicate time tested techniques applicable to contemporary peasant societies.

In Mesoamerica, amaranth developed as an important ritual and cash crop (Sauer 1950, 1967, 1977; Velasco 1987). Montezuma's tribute in amaranth almost equaled that of maize and beans (Sauer 1967, 1977). In the Andes, amaranth was probably never a major crop and amaranth grain cultivation has almost disappeared as a staple (Hauptli 1979). Amaranth is currently making a comeback in Peru due to a promotional campaign mandated by President Alan Garcia and directed by Ing. Sumar Kalinowski (Sumar 1986).

TECHNIQUES OF CULTIVATION

Tropical Zones

Amaranth is cultivated in the Nahuatl (Aztec) speaking area of Zongolica, Veracruz using slash and burn techniques (Early 1982). Young amaranth greens are picked as vegetables and the grain is later harvested. The plants are allowed to naturally reseed themselves for a second planting.

In the tropical Yanatile region of Southeastern Peru, amaranth is also cultivated with slash and burn, being broadcast after maize is sown. Seeds are also scattered on kitchen compost piles outside the home.

Temperate Zones

In Mexico, growers primarily monocrop amaranth as a cash crop. Techniques of monocultivation may date from the Aztec period when amaranth was grown as a presumably large scale "cash" (tribute) crop. On the outskirts of Mexico City amaranth continues to be cultivated in Aztec chinampas or "floating gardens," an ingenious agricultural system practiced in various forms by the Maya, pre-Inca Lake Titicaca peoples, and other South American cultures (Armillas 1971, Dahlin 1976, Early 1977, Erikson 1987). In the Mexican chinampa system, seed beds are created with fertile mud from the algae rich canals crisscrossing the plots. When the plants are about 20 cm tall they are transplanted approximately 1 m apart in upland fields and fertilized. When the plants reach 1 m high they are hilled by covering the base with about 40 cm of sod. Hilling supports the stalk and reduces weed competition.

In Morelos state, growers seed directly in a line on top of a layer of manure or drop seeds one stride apart. In both systems plants are thinned to 30-36 cm between plants and 60 to 100 cm between rows about 20 days after sowing. Farmers select seeds by species, color, and yield. About 15 days after the initial application, plants are fertilized again. Plants are harvested with a sickle and the dried seeds sifted through an ayate, a maguey fiber cloth or metal screen. Peasants store the seeds in sacks for up to ten years.

In Peru, amaranth is cultivated by Quechua Indian subsistence growers on small plots in inter-Andean valleys in the qheshwa maize zone between 2,700 and 3,500 m (Morlon 1982). Before sowing, the land is plowed to remove large clods. Often a ritual offering of alcohol is made to the land. Many peasants do not fertilize before sowing, while others sow amaranth in naturally fertile areas in the field. Some leave cows in the field to fertilize with manure. Others spread a line of manure as in Mexico and sow the seeds on top. Many farmers do not select seed to sow, while others select for yield and shatter resistance.

Quechua peasants sow amaranth in a number of basic intercropping patterns which may date from pre-Colombian times. These patterns represent ideal types and in any particular field variations of these basic patterns can be found (Early 1988). A common configuration is to sow amaranth in señales or rows 30 cm-1 m wide, parallel to rows of maize, at regular intervals of around 2-3 m. Another pattern is to sow an amaranth border around all or part of the perimeter of the field. Peasants say the border protects the principal crop, generally maize, against the wind, frost, animals, and theft.

Amaranth is intercropped with maize in the same row. Amaranth is also transplanted within the field to spaces where the maize did not germinate. The plant is sometimes sown alone in rows or broadcast. It is also allowed to grow as a volunteer and cultivated within the field.

As in Mexico, hilling (hallmay) or aporques is practiced to support maize and amaranth stalks, improve the furrow's ability to carry water, and eliminate weeds. The first hilling is done when the plant is about 20 cm. high and the second (kutipay) when the amaranth has reached around 70 cm. Generally, the fields are hand weeded twice. Harvesting is done by pulling up the entire plant or cutting the head or stalk with a sickle. The heads are rubbed between the hands, against a stone or flailed with sticks (wactana) to remove the seeds. The seeds are then winnowed by pouring between plates.

TRADITIONAL USES

In both Mexico and Peru, wild amaranth leaves are gathered, boiled, and fried. In both areas only popped seeds are eaten. In Mexico, the seeds are popped on a clay griddle comal with an escoba whisk broom (Fig. 1). In Peru, a clay pot and drumstick like spatula is often used (Early and Capistran 1987).

The most common commercial use of amaranth in both regions is as a snack (alegrias in Mexico; turrones in Peru) made by mixing the popped seeds with molasses. Amaranth flour (pinole in Mexico; mash'ka in Peru), made by grinding the popped seeds on a grinding stone, is the next most common use. Less frequently in Mexico tamales are also made with the flour.

In Peru, seeds are also fermented to make amaranth chicha or beer. Dried stalks are used for fuel. Ash from the stalk is also used for soaking maize and making tokra balls which are gnawed on when chewing coca leaves.

In the Cuzco area the flowers of cultivated wild amaranth (airampo) are used to treat toothache and fevers. The boiled red flowers are also used to color maize and quinoa (chicha). During the Carnival festival women dancers sometimes paint their cheeks with the red flowers as a rouge and dance carrying bundles of amaranth on their back as if they were babies (Fig. 2).

In Ecuador, they boil the flowers and add the colored water to aquardiente rum to "purify the blood." It is also used by women who claim it helps regulate irregular menstrual cycles.

CONCLUSIONS

Amaranth has been used and continues to be used as both a subsistence and commercial crop in Mexico and as a subsistence crop in Peru. In both regions pre-Columbian cultures have separately developed similar techniques of cultivation and use. The development of monocultivation, seed selection, and fertilization reflect the use of amaranth as a cash crop which may date from pre-Columbian times. In developing amaranth for Third World farmers, agronomists should evaluate these indigenous practices. Plant breeders could consider breeding for popping, an important characteristic. Amaranth has an important future in U.S. agriculture as well. It is particularly well suited to the dry areas of the Western United States. Its outstanding nutritional qualities make it appealing to an increasingly health conscious American public. Processors could improve the taste of amaranth products by following the indigenous practice of popping the seeds prior to processing. Amaranth is a new crop with enormous potential for U.S. as well as Third World agriculture.

REFERENCES


*I would like to acknowledge Rodale Research and Development for supporting my early amaranth field work in Mexico. The Andean research was supported by a Fulbright Grant for Advanced Research and the Center for Andean Crops-Amaranth Project of the Universidad de San Nicolas Abad, Cuzco, Peru.
Fig. 1. Toasting amaranth, Cuzco, Peru. Fig. 2. Woman dancer carrying a bundle of amaranth on her back during the carnival dance festival Pisac, Cuzco, Peru.

Last update August 26, 1997 by aw