Amaranthus retroflexus | Redroot Pigweed | Male Finger
• Scientific Name: Amaranthus retroflexus
• Common Name(s): Redroot Pigweed, Common Amaranth, Green Amaranth
• Nickname: Male Finger
• Native: L48
• Group: Dicot
• Family: Amaranthaceae
• Duration: Annual
• Growth Habitat: Forb/herb
• Known Human Hazards: See Miscellaneous
• Poisonous Look-Alikes: None
IDENTIFYING CHARACTERISTICS: erect weed, 3 to 6 feet tall / unbranched or branches occasionally / flower cluster spikes develop at top of central stem and from where leafstalk meet the stem / long leafstalks / leaves alternate on stem / underside of each leaf has raised pinnate (feather-like), parallel veins / leaves are ovate to elliptic to lance shaped / stem is stout. TIME OF YEAR: spring into summer for leaves / summer or fall for seeds. ENVIRONMENT: weedy meadows / full sun / rich to poor soil, as long as moisture is available / will not grow in shade / degraded habitats preferred. METHOD OF PREPARATION: young leaves (closer to the top) raw or boiled for 15 to 20 minutes; can be added to soups, stews, etc / upper stems raw or cooked / seeds raw, cooked or ground (can be toasted before grinding to add flavor) into flour for use as hot cereal, for bread or as a thickener for gravies, soups and stews / whole seeds boiled for 20 minutes or soak overnight; for use as hot or cold cereal / pop seeds like popcorn as they add texture and crunchiness to breads, salads, soups and granola / sprouted seeds raw or in salads / see seed harvesting technique under miscellaneous section below.
FORM: weedy / erect / unbranched or branches occasionally. FLOWERS: tiny / they develop spike clusters / long spikes develop at top of central stem and from where leafstalk meet the stem / much shorter spikes develop from where the leafstalk meet the stem. SEPALS: 5 / cream / 2 millimeters long / oblong / tips are rounded to flat. PETALS: none. LEAVES: mostly green / alternate on stem / up to 5 ½ inches long (excluding leafstalk) and 3 inches wide / becoming slightly smaller as they ascend the central stem / smooth or slightly wavy along the edges / notched at the tip when young / leafstalk up to 2.5 inches in length / leafstalk can have reddish color / underside of each leaf has raised pinnate (feather-like), parallel veins / hairs occur along the veins under leaf / lowermost leaves are larger, ovate or elliptic-ovate shaped / uppermost leaves are smaller, lance-shaped / hairs occur along the veins under leaf / leaves can be covered with short hairs (soft down) or hairless. BRACTS: several / green /1.5 to 2 times longer than sepals / tips are pointed. ROOT: taproot / short / stout / often tinted red. STAMENS: male flowers have 5. OVARY: on female flowers. STYLE: female flowers have 3. STEMS: unbranched, or branches occasionally / central stem light green or tan-green / round in circumference / usually hairy / sometimes the lower portion of central stem is hairless / upper stem ends in a long spike with small green flower clusters. FRUIT: after being pollinated (by wind) each flower is replaced by a bladder-like capsule containing one seed / capsule tan / it splits open to release the seed. SEEDS: tiny / flattened / dark brown or black / circular / glossy. SIZE: 3 to 6 feet tall.
• Red and green dyes can be obtained from the whole plant.
LEGENDS, MYTHS AND STORIES
• Was a staple of pre-Columbian Aztecs, who imbued it with supernatural powers and made it part of their religious ceremonies. They would mix amaranth flour and human blood then shaped the dough into idols that were eaten in their well-known sacrificial ceremonies.
• In ancient Greece, amaranth was considered a sacred plant that was thought to have special healing powers. The plant, a symbol of immortality, was used to decorate images of gods and tombs.
• In Mexico and India the seeds are popped and mixed with sugar to make a confection. In Mexico they are roasted for the traditional drink “atole.” Peruvians use the seeds to make a beer. In Nepal the seeds are made in to a gruel.
• Amaranth is from the Greek, meaning “unfading”.
• Known Human Hazards: No members of this genus are known to be poisonous, but when grown on nitrogen-rich soils they are known to concentrate nitrates in the leaves. This is especially noticeable on land where chemical fertilizers are used. Nitrates are implicated in stomach cancers, blue babies and some other health problems. It is inadvisable, therefore, to eat this plant if it is grown inorganically.
• Amaranths contain oxalic acid and every book on wild foods warns us not to consume too much of it. It is true that folks with kidney stones, gout and the like should not over-consume oxalic acid. Yet, when was the last time you read or heard of such a warning for tea, parsley, rhubarb, collards, carambolas, spinach, chard, beets, cocoa, chocolate, nuts, berries, black pepper and beans? They all have oxalic acid as well, but no dire warnings are given with them. It’s important to note that too much oxalic acid is acquired over a long period of time from regular use. Besides, in a “temporary” survival situation kidney stones and gout would be of least concern when you’re starving and need energy. Amaranth’s nutrient value far outweigh oxalic acid concerns.
• Cooking then discarding the water will remove potentially harmful oxalates and nitrates.
• Some sources write that the stout taproot is edible (boil or roast and mash as a potato alternative). Other sources are silent on root edibility. Just to be safe, root edibility is not included in this course.
• Similar Species: Redroot pigweed is often confused with other similar pigweed species. For example, smooth pigweed (Nickname: Female Finger) is very similar, however smooth pigweed has terminal panicles (spikes/fingers at the end of branches) that appear less dense, compact, and bristly than those of redroot pigweed. There are over 60 amaranth species of amaranth (only 3 are common enough to share in this course), none of the over 60 amaranth species are poisonous and they all share similar identifying characteristics. For survival purposes it’s not necessary to distinguish one amaranth from the other. Methods of preparing them edibly and medicinally are the same. Parts or all of the plant can appear with shades of golden yellow to a deep magenta and green of course. They generally grow from 3 to 6 feet tall. Dense, bristly clusters at the top of the plants and out of where the leaf stem meets main stem. Leaves alternate on the stem, oval to lance shaped, notched at the tip when young, they show prominent veins, are on long stems and are smooth or wavy around the edges. Plants have a tap root. Stems are erect, stout, rough or smooth and sometimes hairy. Seeds are black or brown, shinny and smooth. All parts are edible, but some may have sharp 2-part spines, along the stem, that should remove before eating. Spiny amaranth weeds may be confused with Spiny Cocklebur (Xanthium spinosum) however the spines of this weed are 3-parted and it bares distinctive prickly cocklebur fruit.
• Pigweed gets its name because the weeds are widely used as pig fodder.
• The ash of amaranth has a very large salt peter content.
• Amaranth seed is high in protein, some 16%, contains lysine and methionine, two essential amino acids that are not often found in grain, and is high in fiber, three times that of wheat. It also has calcium, iron, potassium, phosphorus, vitamins A, C and E.
• The leaves, seeds, and flowers of the amaranth plant are responsible for all of the health benefits provided
• To determine if the seeds are ripe take one of the flower spikes between your hands and gently shake or rub it. If the seeds readily fall from the spike, the plant is ready to be harvested.
• Seed Harvesting Technique: To collect the seeds after they form and are ripe (see the preceding), gently tip the plant to the side and shake or rub flower spikes into a bag (onto a tarp, non-porous jacket, or other container) to free the seeds. Then winnow away chaff. Consider any insect that you collect as additional protein.
• Pre-soak (optional) seeds overnight, or for 6-8 hours to reduce cooking time and to reduce bitter taste of their saponin content. Pour water off after soaking. NOTE: For survival purpose (or not), pouring off water should be reconsidered. Researchers are looking closely at saponins’ biochemical properties, which they believe include mechanisms (natural antibiotics) that can stimulate the immune system, ward off microbial infections, fungal infections and protect against viruses.
• The seeds can be cooked whole but they become very jelly-like in consistency. For best nutritional value, even though seeds can be eaten raw, this method is suggested because it’s rather difficult to crush a lot of small “raw” seeds in the mouth; thus some of the raw seeds will pass right through the digestive system without being used by the body. NOTE: For survival purpose (with no means or container for cooking) just soak the seeds overnight, or for 6-8 hours – if not for 24 hours.
• Sprouting Seed: The following information is provided as a reminder to those who’ve taken the time to do “bag sprouting” research prior to an emergency and already have a grasp on it’s process. If sprouting during an emergency (or not) is something that you’d like to have in your knowledge base do your research, study and practice early. BASICALLY: Rinse seeds (soaking is not necessary for amaranth). Use cool water. Place seeds in a makeshift (emergency) bag (cotton or other natural material required). Dip bag in cool water. Hang bag, with no direct sunlight, where it can drip. Rinse bag in cool water for about 20 to 40 seconds (use high water pressure whenever possible), with seeds inside, every 4 to 6 hours (do not allow seeds to dry). Seeds sprout in 2-4 Days. NOTE: In a survival situation, because successful sprouting is such a delicate process (clean water, room temperature optimal, rinse frequency, etc), only try sprouting if there is a abundance of seeds and you seek more variety than the previously shared seed preparation methods
MEDICINAL PROPERTIES: Astringent, Hemostatic, Antidiarrheal, Nutritive, Alterative, Diuretic, Alkalizing, Anthelmintic.
PARTS USED: Leaves, flowers and seeds (usually just leaves) are crushed and used together.
COMMON CONDITIONS: Acid Stomach – The alkalinizing properties of it’s raw, fresh young leaves will help neutralize stomach acid • Bites – Leaf poultice to treat snake and insect bites • Diarrhea – Infusion for relief • Dysentery – Strong leaf decoction • Menstruation (Profuse) – Drink leaf infusion • Mouth Irritations – Infusion as mouthwash or chew leaves (spit poultice) and spread them around the mouth (or pack upon sore) with the tongue • Nose Bleeds – The leaves encourage clotting. Roll leaf with fingers, releasing the moisture, into a nose plug. Place plug inside the affected nostril and leave until bleeding completely stops. Remove gently • Parasites (Intestinal) – A strong leaf decoction to remove worms and other parasites from the digestive tract • Stings – Leaf poultice to treat bee, wasp, hornet and scorpion stings • Stomach Ache – Infusion • Throat Irritations – Gargle infusion • Toxicity (Blood) – Infusion • Wounds – Infusion or decoction as a wash.
• For better memory and to personalize the story a bit; embellish it by incorporating your five senses as much as possible. Mnemonic techniques rely on the fact that your brain uses information from all your senses — touch, sight, smell, hearing, and taste — to form memories. Create images that are clear, pleasant, funny, exaggerated or sensual as long as it can help you remember the information. It will also help your memory retention to act out each part of the mnemonic over and over again.
• Mnemonics, shared in the course, are designed to have the distinguishing plant parts trigger the mnemonic when you spot them in the field. This is called the “trigger effect”. If ever you have trouble recalling the complete mnemonic, after spotting a distinguishing plant feature, study all of the plant parts closely; they will remind you.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: Read Similar Species under the Miscellaneous section before continuing.
MNEMONIC: Remembering amaranth is easy as 1 (finger), 2 (hands), 3 (knee).
MNEMONIC EXPLAINED: 1) Do like the plant is doing and point to the sun. This shows you 12 (1, 2, …3) things • Your index finger (1), pointing at the sun, tells you that parts or all of the plant can appear with shades of golden yellow to a deep magenta (like the sun) and green of course • Dense, bristly clusters (a spike) at the top of the plants (tap top of finger; it represents top of plant and the flower cluster spike). You won’t have to remember dense, bristly cluster on top of plant because that will be the first thing the plant will show you when you meet it • Leaves oval to lance shaped (while still pointing turn the knuckle of your thumb towards you; touch tip of middle finger to tip of thumb; now look through the hole the two fingers make; proceed to make oval to lance shapes).
• Leaves are notched at the tip when young (notice notch that forms at the tip of where the two fingers meet) • Leaves are smooth or wavy around the edges (as the outline of your two fingers are).
• Leaves show prominent veins (while looking through the hole of leaf shapes move pinky and ring finger so both cross through leaf shapes; evenly spaced below middle finger; these represent veins) • Leaves on long stems (your index finger or forearm represents this) • Tap root (tap your elbow; it represents the bottom of the plant; consider always doing this at the beginning, after you’ve tapped the top of the plant tap the bottom also in order to define your boundaries; then fill in the middle details) • Stems are erect (your forearm) • Stems are stout (your forearm) • Stems are rough or smooth (a forearm) • Stems are sometimes hairy (a forearm).
2) Bring your “2“ hands together and interlink your fingers like you’re praying. Now straighten your fingers out. This shows us “2“ things • Leaves alternate (as your extended fingers do) • Flower clusters (spikes) grow out of where the leaf stem meets main stem (one hand represents the spikes while the other hand represents the leaf stem and main stem).
3) Get ready to kneel upon one knee (rhymes with “3”) like you’re praying. This show us “3“ things. The first is the seed description: 3 in 1 • Before kneeling on the ground (brown or black) you’ll naturally look for a spot that’s as clean (shinny) and “smooth” as possible (amaranth seeds are black or brown, shinny and smooth) • If you happen to see spines on the ground (2-part spines appear on the stem of some amaranth species) just remember, spines of 3 not good for the knee (one is associated with the other by the number 3). Spines of 2 good for you (the number 2 is not associated with the knee ) . Now that the ground inspection is complete you can kneel. Plants generally grow from 3 (1 knee) to 6 (2 knees) feet tall.