Crazy Useful Thing of the Day: Amaranth

The amaranth (Amaranthaceae) family encompasses a surprising and diverse number of useful plants that you see everyday, but probably would never guess are this closely related. For example:

Beets (Beta vulgaris)

The beet is presumed to have originated in the region around the Mediterranean, but it is now widely naturalized to and cultivated in many regions around the world. There are four main categories of cultivars within the species: the sugar beet, an important source of table sugar; the garden beet, cultivated as a root vegetable; the leaf vegetables of chard and spinach beet; and mangel or mangelwurzel, an important fodder crop. In addition to these uses, the beet is being explored as a possible source of biofuel.

Epazote (Dysphania ambrosioides)

Also known as Jerusalem tea or wormseed, epazote is a species of perennial herbaceous plant native to southern Mexico and Central and South America. It has a long history of use as a medicinal plant and as a leaf vegetable and food flavoring. Its essential oil contains a high percentage of the compound ascaridole, which is toxic to humans and pets. It is also used as a natural pesticide. Its chemical composition can be detrimental to other plants, giving it the potential to become an invasive weed when introduced to areas outside its natural range.

Glasswort (Salicornia spp.)

Salicornia is a genus of annual succulent halophyte (salt-loving) plants native to western Asia, North America, North Africa and Europe. In the past, common glasswort (S. europaea) was burned to get soda (sodium carbonate) from the ashes which was used in glass manufacture and soap making. The North American species, S. bigelovii (dwarf glasswort) is high in unsaturated fats and protein, and can be grown in saltwater to provide fodder for stock animals. It has also been explored as a potential source of biofuel.

Quinoa (Chenopodium quinoa)

Quinoa is an annual plant native to the Andean region of South America, and now widely cultivated elsewhere. It has been cultivated for at least 3000 – 4000 years for its edible seeds. The outer seed coating contains saponins, which are processed out prior to consumption, but which have been used traditionally as a detergent, and as an anti-septic. Several other species within the goosefoot (Chenopodium) genus are also cultivated for food, such as: C. album (lamb’s quar-ters); C. berlandieri subsp. nuttalliae (huauzontle), of Mexico; and C. pallidicaule (kaniwa), also of the Andean region.

Spinach (Spinacia oleracea)

Spinach is an annual plant native to central and western Asia. It is widely cultivated in temperate zones around the world as a leaf vegetable. It is a very rich source of several essential vitamins and minerals.

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