The Incans knew amaranth grain as a prized health food, but the flowers have great ornamental value in the sunny garden too. If this flower could sprout legs, it would run off and join the circus. If it had a hairstyle, it would sport dreadlocks. It’s funky and fun, but blends well with other plants. Whether you plant trailing or towering varieties, amaranth is sure to garner positive comments in your flower garden from early summer until frost.
Get to Know Amaranth
The name “love-lies-bleeding” is often used as a blanket term to describe ornamental amaranth, but this only describes one variety of the plant in the Amaranthus genus. You may also hear the terms “fountain plant” or “Joseph’s coat” used. Joseph’s coat also refers to a particular variety of amaranth, a type grown for its showy foliage rather than its insignificant flowers.
Ornamental amaranth plants bear loads of tassel-shaped flowers that may droop like decorative chains or remain erect. Flowers are usually red to crimson, but you can find orange, yellow, and green types for the garden. Leaves may be as decorative as the plants, with some varieties featuring bronze or purple foliage. With varieties ranging from 20 inches to five feet or greater in the garden, you can populate the middle and back of the border with these showy gems.
How to Plant Amaranth
Ornamental amaranth is closely related to several common weeds, which hints to the easy cultivation and growth of this warm weather annual. Choose a sunny site with well-drained soil of average fertility. The plants thrive in a slightly acidic soil, with a pH range from 5.6-6.5. If starting amaranth from seed, you can directly sow the seed outdoors after all danger of frost is past. It isn’t recommended to start the seeds indoors, because of the rapid rate of growth. When it’s time to thin the seedlings, add the tender young sprouts to your salads or stir fries.
Amaranth Plant Care
Amaranth plants are drought tolerant, and don’t like excessive irrigation. They don’t require any fertilization, and in fact too much nitrogen will cause the plant to produce more leaves than flowers. Tall varieties may need staking, especially late in the season when the pendulous flower heads are fully developed. The plants self-sow freely for amaranth flowers every year.
The biggest pest of amaranth is deer. They must appreciate the health benefits of this wonder grain as much as we do! Deer will browse the foliage and feast on the seeds as readily as any tender vegetable, and will only be deterred by fencing.
Using Amaranth in the Garden
Place amaranth in the back of the border, alone in a mass planting or alongside other tall annual plants. Amaranth plants will dwarf smaller bedding plants like marigolds or vinca, but it makes a dramatic statement as a companion to sunflowers, cleome, zinnias, or nicotiana.
The edible qualities of amaranth make it a natural choice for the ornamental vegetable garden. Prepare the young leaves like spinach. When the seed heads mature, you may explore the possibility of milling this ancient grain. Alternatively, share the bounty with the wild birds in your garden or feed the nutritious seeds to your domestic poultry.
Amaranth Varieties to Try
Although most garden centers carry one or two types of amaranth, it's worth the effort to dig a little to find uncommon varieties of this diverse genus. Companies like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds go beyond the common red and green types, offering gardeners seldom-seen forms and colors. Here are a few to entice the amaranth aficionado:
- Early Splendor: The purple foliage is as lovely as the vivid red flowers
- Elephant Head: Unusual dense flower clusters narrow to one protruding, trunk-like flower plume
- Green Tails: As the name suggests, a trailing type with green flowers for your containers and hanging baskets
- Hot Biscuits: An heirloom type bearing multiple orange upright plumes
- Love Lies Bleeding: Cerise blooms cascade from a five-foot tall plant
- Opopeo: This giant six-foot plant with red flowers and burgundy leaves makes an excellent companion to sunflowers
- Pillar: Red or orange types don’t shed seeds, making them an excellent cut flower
- Pygmy Torch: A compact 20-inch plant featuring burgundy tassels for your containers or hanging baskets