What some call "pigweed" has a rich history and practical use

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Long before Mexico knew modern corn, its people dedicated another far more ancient grain to their war god, Hummingbird. Each year a tribute to the Aztec king Montezuma filled 18 imperial Aztec granaries with 10,000 bushels each.

If not corn, then what is this mysterious grain that preceded maize by 4,000 years? It is amaranth, which modern-day gardeners know and malign by its common name — pigweed. But those varieties grown for grain are much larger than pigweed, and the Aztecs culled the most prolific breeds to gradually improve their strains.

Amaranth is a tiny black or white grain no larger than a seed bead, and it pops on a hot surface just like popcorn. The grain was also ground into meal to make cakes that were said to be the bones of their god, which lent his strength when consumed.

In the lakes of Mexico, Aztecs built up chinampas, which are small islands of lake-bottom muck raised above the waterline. They grew crops here, but amaranth was often grown in longboats filled with rich soil, which were separate from livestock and pests that would feed on ground-dwelling stands. (A gardener, camped aboard the boat, tended the plants and protected them from birds.) The young leaves of an amaranth are a nutritious and mild green that can be eaten fresh or cooked. Only after flowers mature does the second crop, the grain, become ready to harvest.

So why did they abandon amaranth cultivation when it was such a widespread staple? The Spanish sought to destroy the relationship of amaranth to the war god Hummingbird by outlawing its cultivation. Priests felt that the ritual eating of Hummingbird’s “bone”amaranth competed with Christian communion. Unless this was stopped, Christianity could never take hold.

Yes, corn was in cultivation then, but it proved more difficult to grow with its high demand of soil and water. This forced change in staple crops resulted in the evolution of the corn tortilla and the emergence of Mexican cuisine as we know it today.

Amaranth is still widely cultivated in rural areas because it is far more tolerant of extremes of weather and soil. For home gardeners with less-than-ideal conditions, consider these plants an easy alternative to more demanding crops. You can eat pigweed, and it also serves as a valuable cultural learning experience for children.

Amaranth has been stabilized into some large and surprisingly ornamental varieties that are easy to grow. Those sold through Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) are ideal for the North American climate.

It is a tall, rangy plant with large, fluffy flowers on top. Bloom colors range from deep burgundy to red, orange and yellow, depending on the variety. It is closely related to Victorian favorite loves-lie-bleeding and the celosias, which give us cockscomb. The flower color can be so intense the Hopi used their variety for a red dye.

Dozens of varieties offered by Seeds of Change include Elephant Head, which is shorter and quite ornamental. The taller Golden Giant can reach 6 to 7 feet tall. Adding these plants into beds and borders provides for bold summer colors. They double as early greens, cut flowers and, if allowed to go to seed, a grain source.

The miracle of this little-known crop is that it retains the vigor of a weed and the resiliency of a species in cultivation for hundreds of years in North America. It is the legacy of pre-conquest Mexico, where it fed an entire population before interference from Europeans. Perhaps it deserves to be reconsidered in this time of equally monumental change, offering food and extraordinary beauty to American gardens.

Maureen Gilmer is a horticulturist. Her blog, the MoZone, offers ideas for cash-strapped families. Read the blog at www.MoPlants.com/blog. E-mail her at mogilmer@yahoo.com.