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Amaranthus hypochondriacus: an overview
Amranthus hypochondriacus is native to Mexico and Guatemala (Coons 1982). It was domesticated in Mexico and came to be nearly as regionally important as corn and potatoes in Pre-Hispanic times (Repo-Carrasco-Valencia et al. 2010). It is the most robust and highest-yielding grain amaranth and is rich in carbohydrates, plant protein, and in iron and vitamins, especially A and C (Repo-Carrasco-Valencia et al. 2010; Itúrbide & Gispert 1994). It is still grown on a smaller scale in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina by Andean farmers (Mujica 1994). There it continues to be important because of its nutritional quality but also because of the fact that it is an excellent nitrogen-fixer (Kauffman &Weber 1990).
Seeds of A. hypochondriacus found in the Ozarks of the south central United States have been dated to 1100 BCE suggesting that Native Americans may have used it as a crop although there is no extant history of use (Meyers 1996). An alternative theory is that the seeds might have been eaten by hunter-gathers in North and South America before their domestication for agriculture (Putnam et al. 1989).
A. hypochondriacus is the second oldest domesticated grain amaranth after A. cruentus and seeds of A. hypochondriacs dating back 1,500 years have been found in tombs at archeological sites in Mexico (Meyers 1996). It is known that A. hypochondriacus was used by the Aztecs (along with its sister species A. cruentus) as a staple food as well as in Aztec religious rituals (Repo-Carrasco-Valencia et al. 2010; Meyers 1996). In fact, the tribute list of Montezuma, the last Aztec Emperor, shows that he requested almost as much grain amaranth as maize at the time of the Spanish Conquest (Repo-Carrasco-Valencia et al. 2010).
The Aztec name for amaranthus hypochondriacus or amranthus cruentus is “huatli” and many Aztec foods could be derived from amaranth including bread (Itúrbide & Gispert 1994). A drink that was made from water and amaranth was called “uauhatoli” and there was a dish made from the dough of amaranth flower and filled with its leaves called “huauquillamalmaliztli.”
According to the Spanish, the Aztecs made idols from milled seeds of amaranth kneaded with the blood of human sacrifices and shared pieces of it to celebrate religious rituals (Repo-Carrasco-Valencia et al. 2010). This offended the Spanish as a perversion of the eucharist and as a result, cultivation and production was suppressed and grain amaranth became a little grown crop until recently (Berghofer & Schoenlecher 2002; Plotkin 1988; Tucke 1986).
Despite suppression it spread to other parts of the world including Asia. In India A, hypochondriacus L. is called “the king’s grain” and is popped to make confections called “laddos” (Kauffman &Weber 1990). In Nepal amaranth seeds are eaten in a type gruel called “satoo” or milled into flour to make “chappatis (Kauffman &Weber 1990).”
Between mid-1970s and mid-1980s crop yields of amaranth more than doubled due to successful breeding research (Tucke 1986). By the 1990s the United States was the leading producer of grain amaranth even though production was less than 2,000 acres annually; it is now believed to have been surpassed by China (Meyers 1996).
A. hypochondriacus grows well in North America (Tucke 1986). Early season frost damage is not a problem in the Northern Hemisphere because amaranth is harvested in May and June. Frost actually plays an important role in harvest because it does not mature completely in the upper Midwest and a frost is needed to kill the plant so that the material is dry enough to harvest (Putnam et al. 1989).