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Neglected Crops: 1492 from a Different Perspective. 1994. J.E. Hernándo Bermejo and J. León (eds.). Plant Production and Protection Series No. 26. FAO, Rome, Italy. p. 93-101.

Grain amaranths

(Amaranthus spp.)

The authors of this chapter are G.A. Itúrbide (Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Durango, Mexico) and M. Gispert (Science Faculty, UNAM, Mexico City).

Amaranthus cruentus, Amaranthus hypochondriacus

Botanical names: Amaranthus cruentus L., Amaranthus hypochondriacus L.

Family: Amaranthaceae

Common names. English: prince's feather; Spanish: huautli, alegría (Mexico), bledos (Mexico, Guatemala), amaranto

Within the great genetic diversity existing in Mesoamerica, which is the centre of origin and dispersion of numerous species, amaranths occupy a leading position. They constituted one of the five essential plants in the basic diet of the pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican civilizations and were an essential part of Aztec tributes.

It is difficult to classify the amaranth into just one of the three main groups of plant foods normally recognized by nutrition specialists: i) cereals and tubers rich in carbohydrates; ii) legumes and other sources of plant protein; iii) fruit and vegetables rich in iron and vitamins, especially A and C. In fact, amaranths belong to all three since, in addition to their leaves being used as a vegetable, the chief interest in their cultivation and use lies in their seeds which, as well as carbohydrates, contain between 12 and 16 percent proteins, with a high Iysine content.

Archaeological findings in Tehuacán in Puebla, Mexico, show that they were already cultivated over 6000 years ago. They reached their maximum use when grown by the Aztecs in the valley of Anáhuac; their cultivation began to fall off in the colonial period, and Huautli was so firmly established in the food, religion and agricultural practices of pre-Cortés Mexico that even a bird which sought its seeds at harvest time was named uauhtotl, which comes from "huautli" and the word for bird, tototl. A drink (atole) which was prepared with water and huautli or prince's feather flour was called uauhatolli and the flour dough filled with its leaf was called huauquillamalmaliztli (a dish of bledos [prince's feather] tamales). Its cultivation practices also had a special nomenclature: uauhteca was the sowing of its seeds, uauhpuztequemi was the name of its harvest and the unshelled seed was called uauhtlipolocayo. In the Aztec religion, months were designated in which a dough called tzoalli was prepared with the flour of prince's feather seeds and the honey of maguey. Depending on the monthly festivity involved, the dough was used to mould different figures ranging from small pyramids to images of mountain deities. These idols were handed around in pieces among those present and were thus eaten. In the eyes of the colonizers, ceremonies of this type seemed similar to the Christian Eucharist, hence its cultivation was persecuted and its consumption prohibited.

There were actually several factors which acted synergistically to reduce the cultivation of prince's feather; mainly its replacement by other species of grain, introduced from the Old World, a lack of appreciation or distaste on account of its flavour. and religious reasons.

The first two reasons were easily substantiated. but demonstration of the third was not so evident because of the tenuousness of its origin. However, sufficient evidence of this cause can be found in the work of chroniclers, especially the religious ones. There are constant references to the diabolical nature of amaranth. The two direct allusions to the prohibition of its cultivation were made by Fray Bernardino de Sahagún in 1570 and by Ruiz de Alarcón in 1626.

Sahagún writes in the Historia general de las cosas de la Nueva España, at the end of the First Book which deals with the gods worshipped by the Aztecs: "...if you know of anything among these natives relating to this subject of idolatry, immediately inform the temporal or spiritual authorities so that it may be quickly remedied.... Anyone who does not persecute this sin and its perpetrators by legitimate and meritorious means shall not be considered a good Christian.... The text of the Holy Scripture gives sufficient proof of the deeply malign nature of idolatry and idolaters.... Another folly greater than the demons [their gods] which they worshipped was that they considered the "cloudy mountains" as gods, made images, called Tapictoton, from tzoalli. They gave them a human form, painted them various colours, and, when the celebration was over. they shared the images out among themselves and ate them...".

A little further on, Sahagún describes the feast of the god of fire, Xiuhtecutli, on whose image they placed all the vestments of the chief lord and. placing a throne on his altar and beheading many quails in his presence, "poured their blood before him and also offered a cup [incense] up to him as if to a god and offered him small pastries, known as quimaltemalli and made from bledos (prince's feather) which were eaten in his honour. In all quarters and in every house before they ate them they offered them fire, before which point they did not eat them...". Also at the end of the ceremony in worship of the god of war Huitzilopochtli, as an act of collective purification, the people of the great Tenochtitlán (today Mexico City) shared out and ate tiny portions of tzoalli dough which represented his body. This cult was called tecuelo (god eaten).

As can be seen, some rites of the polytheist religion of the ancient Mexicans had a great similarity with the Christian Eucharist.

In 1626, Ruiz de Alarcón mentions the rebellion which was still going on at that time among some indigenous groups against the acceptance of Christianity, and the continuance of idolatrous ceremonies, including the construction of gods with tzoalli. Religious persecution of the consumption and, therefore, of the cultivation of this species also prevailed, as shown by the following excerpt from Chapter III of the Tratado de las supersticiones y costumbres gentilicas que hoy vive entre los indios naturales destu Nueva España,1 by Alarcón:

"It is idolatry when as a gesture of thanks that it has ripened, from the first [fruit] they pick, well ground and kneaded, they make idols of a human figure about a quarter of a yard2 in size, they have much of their wine prepared ready for the day when they make the idols and, having made and baked them, they place them in their oratories as if they were placing an image, and also set a candle and incense there. Among their select groups some of the wine is offered for the dedication... and, seated in a circle before these idols, with much applause begin honouring and praising them... and, as a token of sacrifice, pour the wine..., some or all of it, before the small idols of pence's feather, an action they call Tlatotoyahua.... However, the owners of the small idols guard them carefully for the next day when those who attended the feast and at the oratory divide the idols into pieces as if for votive offerings and consume them all together.... This fact is ample proof of the very great yearnings and efforts of the devil in continuation of his first sin, which was the origin of his arrogance in wanting to be similar to our Lord God... since, in what I have just related, one sees coveted and imitated so realistically the very singular mystery of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar, in which Our Lord, summing together the benefits of our redemption, ordered that we should actually eat him. while the devil, who is the enemy of everything good, enjoins that these unfortunates should eat him or allow themselves to take possession of him by eating him in those small idols."

At the famous ceremonial centre of Monte Albán in Oaxaca, when tomb seven was uncovered a single relic was found: a human skull covered with a mosaic of turquoises. Initially, it was thought that the base used for its inlay was a resin. but later it was found that the amalgam was tzoalli which, in addition to its sculptural function. was used to perform another religious and purifying function.

As well as the Nahua culture, many others made prince's feather their ritual food in offerings or in confirmation of their gods, such as the Tepehuans, Mayas, Tarahumaras and Yaquis. The Coras call it bé-be and the Huicholes wa-ve. The Huicholes and the Purepechas manufactured biscuits in the form of animals which the latter called tuycen.

The method of preparing tzoalli or tzoale, that is the mixture of prince's feather flour with maguey honey, is the origin of the present-day manner of preparing alegría, a delicacy that has been sold at fairs, in sweatshops and in the streets of Mexico for about the last two centuries. The change that was introduced so as to discourage the use of tzoalli was the replacement of the huautli or prince's feather flour with burst seed, which also formed a paste with honey. The method of preparing the delicacy is simple: the seed is burst by heating it and adding to it sugar-cane syrup; the mixture is put into moulds measuring 80 x 50 x 4 cm, pressed down and cut into blocks. Cylindrical biscuits are also made. Sometimes the sweet is packed into plastic bags which allows it to be stored hygienically and kept in good condition for several months.

Although preparation of the alegría sweetmeat is the main use of amaranth, in some regions it is used to a lesser extent to make atole, pinole or toasted meal, tamales, chuales, 3 dessert and icecreams. and sorbets. It is also added to a mixture of flour to make pastries and pancakes, while the young leaves are used in soups. There are certain foods in which amaranth could be incorporated; for instance atole, milk or bread which are normally served with school meals. This would be a quick way of extending its use. It could also be incorporated in maize tortillas, which are widely consumed in Mesoamerica, or mixed with other flours to enrich their protein content. The possibilities for agro-industrial development with this crop are very promising, since amaranth is very versatile in its use, whether it be in the form of flour, noodles for soup or confectionery, for the extraction of lysine and tryptophan or as a cereal. To this end, agronomic research and machinery are required to achieve industrial development and utilization of huautli or prince's feather which are comparable to those of maize.

The seeds of prince's feather are used for flour (to make tortillas, pinole or toasted meal, confectionery, pastries, biscuits, atoles, "agua fresca", small savoury pancakes, desserts, bread, acalgamas and breadcrumbs), toasted and burst (in the sweet alegría, cereals and preserves) and to extract squalene oil (to manufacture cosmetics).

The leaves are eaten in soups, broths and as a vegetable, and are used in protein extracts, colourings and laxatives. The inflorescences are used for decoration and the stems as animal feed and fuel.

At present, the main areas of cultivation in Mexico are in the states of Guerrero, México, Michoacán, Morelos, Tlaxcala, Puebla and Oaxaca. It is predominantly A. hypochondriacus which is sown under heavy rainfall conditions in small areas. with mixed seed of different varieties, as is done with maize, in order to ensure a harvest. In Guatemala, A. cruentus is mainly sown, under similar cultivation conditions, in the Departments of Guatemala, Chimaltenango and Alta Verapaz. In recent years, great progress has been made in Mexico in the industrialization of amaranth grain, which is packaged in various forms for human consumption. It is also used as starch in the pharmaceutical industry. In Guatemala, INCAP publishes the journal El Amaranto which deals with the agricultural and nutritional aspects of this plant.

As a result of the growing world interest in this crop, the First World Amaranth Congress was held in Oaxtepec in the state of Morelos, Mexico, in September 1991. It was attended by specialists from Argentina, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Guatemala, India, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Peru, the United States and Venezuela. At the congress, the latest advances in cultivation and use were explained and an international network of amaranth specialists was created.

Botanical description

Amaranths are annuals which grow up to 3.5 m in height and have elliptical to ovate-oblong and lanceolate leaves with an acute to acuminate apex. In A. hypochondriacus, the inflorescences are very big and branching, uniform in colour, green or red, and have many flowers with acute bracts, which are rough to the touch. In A. cruentus, the plants are smaller, up to 180 cm, with green or red inflorescences which are sometimes spotted and smooth as the bracts are not pointed. The seeds vary greatly in colour. The inflorescences vary in colour and development, with more of a tendency to be erect in A. hypochondriacus and somewhat more pendulous in A. cruentus.

Germination is epigeal: the seedlings emerge three to four days after sowing and, at 2.5 months, the panicle begins to appear and later flowering occurs. The seeds do not have dormancy problems and maintain their viability at ambient temperature for more than five years, provided their humidity is less than 5 percent.

If there are dormancy mechanisms in the seed, they occur mainly in the wild species. Amaranth has defence mechanisms against diseases: its spiny panicles and seeds, which have a thick, pruinous testa, allow germination in later years.

Figure 8. Grain amaranths: A) Amaranthus cruentus; A1 ) fruit and bracts; B) A. hypochondriacus; B1 ) fruit and bracts

Ecology and phytogeography

The species of Amaranthus cultivated in Mesoamerica are located mainly between 1000 and 1500 m. The amaranth develops best in soils with a loamy or loamy-sandy texture and generally does not tolerate clayey soils, since they absorb too much humidity. In areas with a subtropical climate, it is possible to obtain two harvests per year, particularly in irrigated fields.

In temperate zones with an average annual precipitation of 500 to 800 mm, the cultivated areas are for the most part flooded when the rainstorms begin in May and June. Grain yields range from 800 to 1200 kg per hectare, although it is possible to boost them by increasing population densities and using fertilizers. In experiments in Durango, Mexico, averages of 1500 to 3000 kg per hectare of grain have been obtained, using auxiliary irrigation when sowing begins.

Genetic diversity

A. hypochondriacs varies widely, as indigenous cultivars can be found which have red, green or pink ears; the seed may be cream, white, golden or black. The leaf colouring matches that of the ears; however, there are different tones on the stem. Crossings between cultivars of A. hypochondriacs are viable, although they are self-fertile: the same is the case with A. cruentus. In this species, different ear colours are found: red, green, orange, pink and two-colour (red and green). The colouring of the leaves and petioles matches that of the ear and in some cases the stem has a similar colour; the seed may be white, translucent cream or golden. Interspecific crossings have proved viable, which suggests that coincidence in flowering may produce hybrids.

Until now there have been only a few improved varieties of amaranth in Mesoamerica. In Mexico. INIFAP-CIFAP obtained the variety Revancha, which is grown in the high valleys. The CIIDIR-IPN, Unidad de Durango, has obtained five selections of A. cruentus and three of A. hypochondriacus, with different characteristics and cultivation cycles.

The use of new cultivation areas and the introduction of more profitable crops, as well as areas devoted to stockfarming, are causing genetic erosion. Germplasm therefore needs to be collected in the main production areas, particularly from native cultivars which might no longer be cultivated. The establishment of gene banks is a task requiring swift action, and INIFAP and the UACH are applying themselves to this. More institutions urgently need to act together with this end in view.

In 1984, under the programme of the CIIDIR-IPN, Unidad de Durango, a series of agronomic germplasm evaluation and genetic improvement trials of indigenous cultivars for the semi-arid regions began; in the future, it is proposed that a gene bank should be set up. The search areas will have to cover the Mexican high plateau: Chihuahua, Sonora, Durango, Sinaloa, which are regions still little explored, and the states of the centre and south which have not yet been completely explored.

Cultivation practices

The amaranth is grown in two ways: in seed beds in the chinampas area (central Mexico) and by direct sowing.

Seed bed. In the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, huautli or prince's feather was grown in the valley of Mexico in chinampas, which are "floating gardens" of earth piled on floating mats of twigs in canals and lagoons. The agricultural practices which were used in those times still continue in some localities close to Lake Xochimilco (Tulyehualco, Tláhuac, Mixquic). They consist of preparing seed beds which are later planted out. The following steps are involved:

Building ridges. The ridges may measure from 11 to 20 m in length by 1.5 m wide, depending on the number of plants; the difference in level in relation to the chinampa is 10 cm.

Furrow or seed bed. The ridge is covered with mud taken from the bottom of the water surrounding the chinampa, until it reaches the level of the soil, i.e. a thickness of 10 cm. This mud, which is the agricultural element of the chinampa, is very rich in organic matter, since all the micro- and macro-organic residues of the lake and its surroundings are deposited there.

Once the mud has been removed and placed on the ridges, the excess water is allowed to evaporate ("drain out") through exposure to the sun. When a suitable consistency is reached, it is cut lengthways and breadthways, forming small 4 x 4 cm squares (chapines), or occasionally tepehuales, in other words larger 20 x 20 cm squares which may include up to five chapines.

Sowing. Using a corncob or a finger, a hole is made 1 cm deep in the chapines. In each hole six to eight seeds are placed. The chapín or seed bed is covered with dried horse manure which is preferred because it is the lightest.

Uncovering the seed bed. On the third day of seed germination, when the seedling reaches 3 to 9 mm, the seed bed is uncovered so that the plantlet may grow without restraints.

Creation of acomanas. When the seed bed has been uncovered, the plantlets are left there for a month to grow approximately 5 to 10 cm. During this time, they begin to be separated from the soil and from one another. Acomanas are formed so that the plants do not take root in the ridge and their growth is temporarily arrested, giving time for the rainstorms to arrive (June-September).

Packing. Depending on when the rains begin, the chapines are placed in a wooden carrying crate made from pieces of light wood to prevent the plantlets being knocked about or broken during transportation to the cultivation plot.

Transplanting. This a task requiring at least four people. One ploughs the ground, so that the damp soil is turned face down while another loosens the seedlings to leave two or three per chapín. The chapines are laid out on a maguey leaf one end of which is tied at the belt and the other is held in one hand, or else a portable crate is hung from the shoulder, while a third person, dropping a plant every 60 or 80 cm, lowers a chapín into the bottom of the furrow; a fourth person arranges the chapín in such a way that the plant stays erect pressing the soil down around it by hand or foot, thus completing the transplanting operation.

Threshing. The plants are cut 10 or 20 cm from the soil surface, forming sheaves of ten to 15 plants which are left to dry for a couple of weeks.

Threshing starts with armfuls of the dried plant being strewn on to sackcloth stretched over the ground so as to perform the traditional "dance", which consists of trampling the ears over and over again until the seeds work loose. Those that are not separated undergo a further process: the ears are beaten more forcefully with a rope.

Seed cleaning. A sieve is made with a cord sack which is tied by its corners to four tree trunks. One person pours bowls of seed on to it while another moves them around with one hand so that they fall through the openings of the sack. At the same time, the first person fans them with a hat so that the air finishes off cleaning them.

Nowadays, these ancestral practices are accompanied by others, such as fertilizing and threshing, which are no longer done manually.

Storage. The oldest known way of keeping prince's feather is by storage in underground deposits. Large earthenware pots (cuexcomates) were also used (2.5 x 2.5 m, with sides 10 to 12 cm thick). Other means used were barns, granaries or crates. These means of storage are still used nowadays but, more frequently, bags of around 50 kg are ensiled or concrete rooms with mud floors which prevent humidity from passing through are built. However, prince's feather seeds can be stored for more than ten years in dry, well-ventilated places.

Direct sowing. In Tlaxcala, Puebla, Oaxaca, Morelos and Guerrero, it is more common to sow an abundant quantity of seed directly into the ridge of the furrow at the start of the rains. Later, the plants are thinned out, which is easier to do when they are 10 to 15 cm high. In general, cultivation practices are similar to those used to grow maize: earthing up, fertilization in two stages and weeding.

Harvesting in these cultivation areas is similar to that in the Mexico valley. During September and October, the ears are cut and, when dried, all the leaves of the stem are piled up so that they can be beaten to remove the seeds, which are then sieved and cleaned. The yields obtained generally range between 800 and 1500 kg per hectare.

Prospects for improvement

In Mesoamerica, research needs to be done on both the basic aspects of this cultivation and the development of farming technologies for the areas currently in production as well as the areas of future expansion (semi-arid zones of northern Mexico). Local consumption and exports will also need to be promoted. Also essential is a complete programme of basic research, the development of techniques and improved materials as well as advertising campaigns recommending the product and its value as a food. Peru, where a programme of this kind has enabled yields to be increased from 1800 to 3000 kg per hectare, and even 6 000 kg per hectare on trial plots, should serve as an example. Complementary extension work has been devoted to the different ways in which the product can be consumed and packaged for export.

Among the projects that could be developed for improving amaranth production in Mesoamerica, the following may be considered:

There will have to be an economic and social element in applied research so that experimental results can be evaluated. From the social point of view, a contribution towards improving the peasant diet must be sought in the intensive cultivation of the amaranth, as was attempted some years ago in Guatemala.


1 Treatise on the gentile superstitions and customs which exist today among the Indian peoples of this New Spain. (trans.)

2 Here, a Latin American yard (vara), measuring 0.836 m, or 2.8 ft. (trans.)

3 From the Nahuatl tzohualli, the ritual paste made by the Aztecs from amaranth seeds; it is a kind of tamale eaten around Mexico City on religious feast days.

last update Wednesday, May 06, 1998 by aw