I’ve already written a few times about quinoa. It is one of my top recommended crops for survival gardening. Amaranth is also highly recommended, for similar reasons. It is high in total protein at about 13.56% (higher in some varieties). This compares favorably to white rice at 7% and brown rice at 8%. Whole wheat flour has about the same level of protein: 13.21%. (Protein content from the USDA National Nutrient database.) But unlike wheat, rice, and most other grains, amaranth is a complete protein. It has all the essential amino acids in ideal proportions, according to the Institute of Medicine standard reference values, including lysine. The essential amino acid lysine is usually found in less than ideal proportions in other grains.
Best of all, amaranth does not require hulling. You thresh the crop (separate the grain from the rest of the plant), clean the grain of any bits of leaves, etc., and you are done. It is ready to cook. This saves much manual labor. The same is true for quinoa, but with quinoa you must wash off the bitter saponin coating on the seeds before cooking. Not so with amaranth.
Amaranth can be ground into flour, and used in recipes that do not require yeast and rising (it contains no gluten). In nations where amaranth is popular (South and Central America), the tiny grains are sometimes popped by heating them dry in a hot pan. They puff up when popped, but still remain fairly small. This makes the grains easier to eat. Here’s a brief YouTube video on popping amaranth. Hint: if the grains burn instead of pop, the pan is not hot enough.
Amaranth can also be boiled as a whole grain, like rice. But technically, neither quinoa nor amaranth are grains. They are pseudo-cereals, specifically an achene: a small dense fruit with a hard wall and a single seed in the middle. Even so, they have much the same nutritional content as a grain. For culinary purposes, amaranth and quinoa are basically types of grain.
But wait, there are still more advantages to growing amaranth in a survival garden.
Each amaranth plant produces an abundance of small seeds (achenes), up to one full pound of grain on one plant. With most grains, you need to cut many plant stems to obtain one pound of grain; each stem holds less than an ounce of grain. With quinoa, each plant stem might have a few ounces of grain. With amaranth, there are from several ounces, up to one pound of grain, found on a single plant stem. It is much less work to harvest the grain from the field with so much grain on each stem.
How many amaranth seeds make one pound? — about 600,000. Amaranth seeds are very small. There is an advantage to small seed size: you need less seed, in terms of total seed weight, when planting. The seeding rate is the amount of seed required to plant a given area of land. In the U.S., seeding rate is commonly stated in pounds of seed per acre of land planted. In general, the smaller the seed, the less seed you need (in terms of weight) to plant an acre. Typical seeding rates for wheat, oat, and barley are between 50 and 90 pounds per acre. But due to the very small seed size, amaranth has a typical seeding rate in the range of 0.25 to 4.0 pounds per acre.
For other grains, a higher seed rate will give you a higher harvest, up to a point; and a lower seed rate will give you a lower harvest. But amaranth has an unusual ability: it adjusts itself to the seeding rate. If you plant amaranth more sparsely, each plant produces more grain. If you plant amaranth more densely, each plant produces less grain. So the size of the harvest at 1/4 pound per acre seeding rate is about the same as the size of the harvest at 4 pounds per acre. A sixteen-fold increase in seeding rate has essentially no effect on harvest size:
On the positive side, planting just 2 pounds of seed per acre, the recommended rate, produces so many seedlings, that a large number can be lost with plenty left over for an adequate stand. Amaranth is somewhat unique in the wide range of seeding rates it can be planted at without impacting yields. Field studies in Missouri showed that amaranth yields were fairly constant across a range of 1/4 to 4 pounds of planted seed per acre. (Jefferson Institute)
This fact means that amaranth lends itself well to the small backyard ‘mini-farm’. You can broadcast the seed (toss the seed onto the soil by hand), rather than planting each seed carefully. Those plants that end up more sparsely planted will produce more grain, and those that end up more densely planted will produce less grain. Your harvest size will be much more predictable than when other grains are planted by broadcasting the seed.
The harvest size for amaranth, in a commercial planting, is around 1000 to 2000 lbs/acre. But a backyard gardener, who tends the stand of amaranth carefully and harvests by hand, can double that yield: 2000 to 4000 lbs per acre. And since amaranth is self-fertile, you don’t need to be concerned about pollination by insects or wind. Amaranth lends itself well to manual methods of planting and harvesting.
Another advantage to the small seed size is that you can start with a small amount of seed, and, after one growing season, you will have a vast amount of seed.
Let’s say you have one pound of amaranth. You can plant a whole acre. Technically, you could plant up to four acres, but let’s use conservative numbers. The harvest will be in the range of 1000 to 2000 lbs/acre. Again, these are conservative estimates. Even with a low estimate of yield, and a seeding rate 4 times the minimum, you go from 1 pound to 1000 pounds in one crop cycle. You can then sell or barter the harvest, not only as food, but as seed for replanting. One thousand pounds of amaranth seed will plant one thousand acres.
Compare those number to wheat, barley, or oats, which have a seed rate of 50 pounds or more per acre. Your harvest for a backyard planting of these grains is within the same range as for amaranth, but let’s give those grains a higher estimate of 2000 lbs per acre. Each pound of seed then produces only 40 pounds of grain, not 1000. To put it another way, a one-acre harvest of wheat, barely, or oats will produce enough seed to plant 40 acres of land, but a one-acre harvest of amaranth produces enough grain to plant 1000 acres.
When the SHTF and most commercial sources of gardening seeds run out, amaranth allows you to quickly produce enough seed for many other gardeners to use. All other grain crops take much longer to ramp up the amount of seed available for replanting. Amaranth is well-suited to survival gardening.