The Promise of Amaranth

Amaranth was once outlawed by Spanish colonists. Now, it represents the resilience of Indigenous food systems and the courage of seed savers that preserved the plant for today.

November 21, 2022
By Sarah Siegel, BFI Communications Assistant


Throughout North and Central America, amaranth is never hard to find. 

Alegrías, a sweet cracker made of honey and amaranth seeds, are enjoyed in abundance, available on street corners throughout Mexico City. In rural areas from Guatemala to the American Southwest, Indigenous communities value amaranth as a staple crop, often utilizing the entire plant, from the nutrient dense leaves to the hearty seeds that offer essential proteins and amino acids. Outside of its practical use, amaranth is a cultural centerpiece. With red and purple flowers spouting from six-foot stems like fireworks, amaranth grows in celebration of its own existence. 

The colorful perennial also grows here, in the hills above Berkeley. On October 10, 2022, at the UC Botanical Garden at Berkeley, Guillermo Vasquez of Indigenous Permaculture, an Oakland-based food sovereignty organization, graciously led an amaranth harvesting workshop. Sitting barefoot and hovering over large, wooden bowls,Vasquez demonstrated to a group of over 20 attendees the ancient technique of separating the amaranth grain from its flower.

Guillermo started the workshop with a traditional prayer, emphasizing the sacrality housed within the amaranth seed. Guillermo explained that several steps are taken to ensure this sacrality is respected: Shoes must be removed before the harvest, to avoid stepping on any of the seeds. Great care is taken not only to how the seeds are harvested, but where they are stored. They should be kept in a room separate from swearing, alcohol consumption, or family feuds. A general rule of thumb: If you wouldn’t expose a child to it, don’t expose the saved seeds to it.

If any plant should demand such respect, it’s amaranth, which signifies food sovereignty and the resilience of Indigenous food systems despite centuries of colonial violence. Despite its ubiquity today, amaranth was nearly stamped out of existence by the Spanish when they arrived in Mesoamerica, and it was only the courage of Indigenous seed savers that preserved the plant for today.

For thousands of years, the original inhabitants of the Americas collected amaranth  as a wild food and then domesticated it for its grain into the varieties enjoyed today. The Aztec people used amaranth to celebrate the war god, Huītzilōpōchtli, which roughly translates to Hummingbird of the Left. In ceremonies, the seed would be heated and popped like tiny popcorn. When Spanish conquistadors arrived in the sixteenth century, they immediately recognized the spiritual significance of amaranth and saw it as a threat to Christianity. In an attempt to exercise violent control and oppression, the Spanish banned amaranth and imposed cruel punishments on the Aztecs for growing or saving amaranth seeds.

But amaranth didn’t entirely disappear. For generations, it became the best kept secret in Mesoamerica. In radical acts of courage, Indigenous farmers grew the plant in secret while seed savers protected caches of the seeds and  passed them down through family, dreaming of a day when amaranth could be grown freely again.

“The fact that amaranth still exists, and people are still popping it and still eating it, is revolutionary,” says Cat Callaway, a horticulturist at the UC Botanical Garden. “It’s a big middle finger to the conquistadors, that somebody was hanging on to all the seeds, making sure that one day we are going to have this again.’”

amaranth seedWhile amaranth is grown around the world, marketed as a health food, and baked into energy bars, Guillermo cautions that its Indigenous history must not be forgotten.

“It’s important to recognize the indigenous science. If somebody wants to grow amaranth at the commercial level, don’t forget where the seeds come from — from Indigenous people,” said Guillermo. “And always, the Indigenous people will be the last people that will get resources.”

The amaranth growing in the Botanical Garden respects this legacy. The seeds were sourced from an Indigenous woman named Elena in Guatemala. Guillermo, who also has strong ties to Guatemala, emphasizes the importance of amaranth in preserving his own health and the health of his family members. He personally recommends a few tablespoons of amaranth mixed into a glass of almond milk. For Guillermo, the process of growing amaranth in the Bay Area has been crucial in connecting with the region. 

“When you’re growing and harvesting native meals is when you start to decolonize mentally and connect with the soil, the water, the wind,” he said.

After the bowls were filled with seeds and amaranth flowers, Guillermo shared a specific technique for removing the pieces of flower that invariably find their way into the seed bowl. He cupped the seed and flower mixture in his hands, lifted it over the bowl, and slowly let it trickle back down. The heavier seeds drop back into the bowl, while the lighter flowers blow away. The process might have to be repeated several times. During the workshop, visitors created artificial wind by fanning hats or notebooks. 

Each individual amaranth seed is smaller than a grain of quinoa, but a bowl full of amaranth seeds holds a great promise. Some seeds may be popped, coated in honey and enjoyed as alegrías. Others might be cooked as a grain or mixed into hearty drinks and stews.

And, of course, some seeds will be saved, fulfilling the ancient promise that future generations will grow amaranth, too.