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Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables
To the world of science, vegetable amaranths verge on the invisible. As far as international statistics are concerned, this crop doesn’t exist. Books highlighting world food plants, even those dealing specifically with vegetables, largely ignore it or accord only the briefest mention. Not surprisingly, then, researchers engaged in improving global food supplies pay little heed. Indeed, most may have never heard of a vegetable amaranth.
Yet if this leaf crop seems invisible, it is only because it is hidden in plain sight. At least fifty tropical countries grow vegetable amaranths, and in quantities that are far from small. Throughout the humid lowlands of Africa and Asia, for instance, these are arguably the most widely eaten boiled greens. During the production season, amaranth leaves provide some African societies with as much as 25 percent of their daily protein. In parts of West Africa the tender young seedlings are pulled up by the roots and sold in town markets by the thousands of tons annually. Other parts of the continent also rely on them to a similar degree. A definitive review of southern Africa’s native foods, for example, clearly lays out their status: “Of all the wild edible plants eaten in southern Africa, few if any are as well known and widely used as amaranths.”1
Amaranths are a poor people’s resource, and the plants are often dismissed as “lowly” and ignored as if, like poverty itself, they should be avoided at all costs. As a United States Department of Agriculture bulletin points out, few species of vegetables are so looked down upon. Several languages include the demeaning phrase “not worth an amaranth.” Indeed, the plants are sometimes regarded as being fit only for pigs (“pigweed” is the common name for one despised American species).
At first sight, this scorn seems almost universal. Amaranthus is one of the few genera whose species were domesticated in both the Old and New World.2 It has provided very ancient potherbs (boiled greens) not only to Africa but to Asia and the Americas as well. Nowadays the various species from the different tropical regions are pretty much scrambled up genetically, so that the origins of any given amaranth plant remain (at least for the
Fox, F.W. and M.E. Norwood Young. 1982. Food from the Veld: Edible Wild Plants ofSouthern Africa. Delta Books, (Pty) Ltd., Johannesburg.
Many of the more than fifty Amaranthus species in both tropical and temperate regions are eaten, but only a dozen or so can be considered domesticated.