Palmer Amaranth

by Green Deane

in Flour/Starch,Grain/Nuts/Seeds,Greens/Pot Herb,Plants,Vegetable

Glyphosate resistant Palmer Amaranth, photo by FireFlyForest.com

A farmer’s headache is not necessarily a forager’s delight.

Palmer Amaranth (Amaranthus Palmeri) has been a foraged food for a long time. It was used extensively by the native American population with at least seven tribes preparing it a wide variety of ways. More on that in a moment.

Amaranth, in general, is a good wild food. It occupies the middle ground between excellent and poor. When collected very young Amaranth is a dietary analogue to spinach, which is a relative. At the meristem stage, still young and tender because the cells are still growing, it’s a tasty green usually boiled. Later it becomes a source of grain.  These stages, however, are dynamic, changing and they change at different rates with different species of amaranth. Some amaranths stay more palatable longer than others. More so, depending upon growing conditions, amaranth can also accumulate high levels of nitrates and oxalates making them less than desirable to eat, for you or livestock.

Palmer Amaranth Growth in 52 hours, photo by caes.uga.edu

Palmer Amaranth doesn’t stay young and tender too long. It converts CO2 into sugars more efficiently than corn, cotton or soybean. This allows for rapid growth even when it’s hot and dry because it also produces a large taproot that is studier than that of soybeans or corn and can penetrate hard soil better than cultivated crops, read it can reach water and nutrients other plants can’t reach. Under ideal conditions, Palmer Amaranth can grow several inches per day, upper left. The species also has a rugged stem to support that growth and height.

Palmer Amaranth Pulled From A Peanut Field, photo by Rome Etheredge, extension agent, Seminole County, Georgia.

Palmer Amaranth between corn rows

If you think Palmer Amaranth is already a Botanical Bully then consider this:  It is unusual for an amaranth in that it has male and female plants which greatly aids in distribution and ability to adapt. It can also produce half a million seeds per plant. Every seed is a chance to defeat Genetically Modified Organisms, which are quite expensive to develop. When you consider Ma Nature produces million of Palmer Amaranth plants every year that adds up to perhaps billions of chances annually for her to roll a winner, virtually for free. And that’s exactly what happened. Palmer Amaranth developed a resistance to the weed killer glyphosate and became a superweed. That resistance is costing literally millions of dollar in lost agricultural crops. It “single-plantedly” ruined large farming operation in southern Georgia. That has lead to a lot of hard feelings and finger pointing.

Female flower is bristly, photo by FireflyForest.com

With the help of a nescient media and the no-quality-control Internet the issue is putting farmers and foragers on opposite ends of the nasty rumor mill. More so, what is playing out in Georgia can and will happen elsewhere because resistant Palmer Amaranth is now found in some 20 states. Also, the resistance is expected to spread to other amaranth species plus other edible weeds are developing resistance which brings new meaning to the phrase “seeds of change.”

Palmer Amaranth Distribution

Threatening perhaps 500 acres of soybean and cotton in 2004 Palmer Amaranth by 2010 was affecting up to two million acres in the lower half of Georgia. While that put thousands out of work on the other side of the garden row were foragers saying  ‘not all is lost, all you have to do is eat the weed.’ It was inevitable that Internet sites began saying experts were advising people not to eat Palmer Amaranth because the resistance, a kind of botanical doomsday scenario from a grade B movie. ‘Palmer Amaranth killed our crop and it will kill you too.’ That led to a lot of email to me and we all get too much email. I thought getting to the nitty gritty of it all would in the long term help ease my email inundation.

Dr. Stanley Culpepper

The person most often cited as saying the resistant amaranth is not edible is Dr. Stanley Culpepper, associate professor, University of Georgia, and Extension Agronomist. Not so. I contacted Dr. Culpepper personally regarding the edibility of Palmer Amaranth and asked him about it. His view is quite different than what’s rumored on the Internet.

“If one decides to eat Amaranthus Palmeri,”  Dr. Culpepper said, “there will be no difference in its taste or nutritional value if it is resistant to glyphosate or not.  To date, we have not documented any change in the biological aspects of plant growth or reproduction with regards to resistance.”

Dr. Lynn Sosnoskie

That’s quite straight forward. Where in that statement do you read Palmer Amaranth is not edible? No where. Dr. Culpepper’s post doctoral assistant, Dr. Lynn Sosnoskie, who was also kind enough to contact me, added that there shouldn’t be any difference between the resistant and non-resistant plants though that was not specifically tested by researchers. More so Dr. Sosnoskie said that unless one actually tested a plant for glyphosate one could not readily tell the difference between a resistant and a non-resistant plant. However Dr. Sosnoskie did add an observation of interest to us forager. She said Palmer Amaranth tends to grow mostly on highly managed agricultural land and that land has “likely been treated with insecticides, fungicides, and/or herbicides.” That is important.

Thus, and this is my opinion not Culpepper’s or Sosnoskie’s so blame me not them: If there is an issue with Palmer Amaranth edibility it might not be the plant or glyphosate resistance per se but that of an unmanaged plant growing on highly-treated agricultural land. Unlike a commercial crop grown on such land with supervision and exact timing a wild plant might be on such land too long, under the wrong conditions, or harvested at the wrong time. I can see how that might affect edibility particularly with amaranth’s penchant for taking up too much nitrates and oxalates. Again, that is my opinion not Culpepper’ or Sosnoskie’s.

Philosopher William James

The philosopher William James, and brother to novelist Henry James, always insisted there be a practical side to everything, including philosophical notions. A hard-core New Englander he called it “take home change.” What’s the “take home change” of all this? Palmer Amaranth is edible but not the best of the amaranths. There is no evidence the edibility of Palmer Amaranth is different if it is “resistant” or not. It’s fast growing and does not stay young and tender very long. It can accumulate elevated levels of nitrates and oxalates and would probably do so on improved land, read land that is fertilized a lot such as agricultural land is. Amaranth on unimproved land usually has safe levels of nitrates and oxalates.

Lane Williams pulled this pigweed mid-summer, 2012, photo by Seminole Crop E-News..

Lane Williams pulled this Palmer Amaranth mid-summer, 2012, photo by Seminole Crop E-News.

The foraging advice of “just eat” Palmer Amaranth does not take into consideration the environment. As my readers know I champion my I.T.E.M. system of foraging and that includes E, for environment. In this case the edible plant in question usually grows in a highly fertilized if not chemicalized environment (vs the poor soil it usually inhabits.) This increases its chances of having higher than normal nitrate and oxalate levels, and probably other things, too. You have to take that inconsideration as part of your foraging decisions. I personally doubt some young and tender Palmer Amaranth plants are much of a problem. But, older plants could be and adult plants might sicken livestock. Also, the problem should lessen with time if the fields lie fallow. It’s an environmental issue more than a genetic engineering one for us foragers. Now you have the accurate information and reasoning you need to make an informed foraging decision regarding Palmer Amaranth in agricultural fields in Georgia. That said, what about Palmer Amaranth?

Amaranthus palmeri aka Carelessweed, is one of 60 to 70 species in the genus, depending upon who’s counting. Palmer Amaranth is a very competitive native now found in 30 states but not reported yet in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, Michigan, Alabama, Hawaii, Indiana, and the northern tier states from Iowa north and west.

The Cocopa, Mohave, Navajo, Papago, Pima, Pima Gila River and Yuma tribes all used the Palmer Amaranth for food. Their methods varied greatly including: Fresh plants baked and eaten; leaves boiled as a green; leaves cooked, rolled into a ball, baked and stored; leaves dried then stored for winter; leaves boiled and eaten with pinole; seeds ground into a meal; parched seeds ground then chewed for sugar; seeds parched, sun dried, cooked, stored for winter.

Edward Palmer

Amaranthus (am-ah-RAN-thus) is from Greek means unfading, or evergreen. Palmeri (PALM-er-ee) was named in 1877 after Edward Palmer, plant explorer extraordinaire. Palmer was the right person in the right place at the right time. When Europeans first landed in the new world they were very interested in plants but didn’t record much about how the natives used most of their plants. By the time the white man was pushing west to California a different attitude prevailed. This is why in most ethnobotanical references we know far more about what the Western natives did with plants than the Eastern natives. And one of the reasons why we know that was Edward Palmer, 1829-1911. He collected over 100,000 specimens and discovered some 1,000 new species. Palmer also visited local markets to get plants and study how they were used helping to found modern ethnobotany.

 

Green Deane’s “Itemized” Plant Profile: Palmer Amaranth

IDENTIFICATION: Amaranthus palmeri: Long dense, compact terminal panicles to 1.5 feet, tall — six feet — with alternately arranged leaves, petioles longer than the leaves.  The leaves of Palmer Amaranth are also without hairs and have prominent white veins on the under surface. The male flowers have highly allergenic pollen.

TIME OF YEAR: Flowers summer and fall

ENVIRONMENT:  Agricultural land, disturbed areas, riparian locations, desert, uplands.

METHOD OF PREPARATIONS: Young leaves, young plants, growing tips boiled, baked or dried. Seeds used as grain, parched, roasted, or ground into flour.

 

 

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Brian December 6, 2011 at 12:26

fantastic post!

considered and very informative – thank you.

Brian

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2 Thomas December 13, 2012 at 05:50

Looks like a common weed that I have pulled from my garden. I call it a pigweed, having learned from my dad.

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3 Deborah A. February 18, 2013 at 13:24

I don’t eat any weed or its seed off of farmland, unless it’s an organic farm. However, I will gather seeds and plant them on clean soil. In the case of pigweed, it’s hard to find down here in 10a in the populated areas anyway, because they mow the road shoulders so much. I would have to go out to some undeveloped areas to find it, and it doesn’t seem too common in these parts.

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4 Chris Wilson June 7, 2013 at 01:49

Thanks very much for this helpful information! The farm I live on, where Native Americans used to live, grows pigweed – Palmer Amaranth – better than anything. Now I realize it has probably done so for hundreds of years. We also have native prairies. This land has never had much if any in the way of fertilizers or pesticides applied and has been certified organic, so this is not a highly fertilized or chemicalized environment – but Palmer Amaranth thrives and abounds. The past couple of years, we are trying to improve soil fertility and deal with an abundance of weed and insect pressure. I have often said, “If I could sell pigweed, I would be a wealthy woman.” I have despised Palmer Amaranth, but I will try to improve my attitude towards it. Maybe I will try producing amaranth flour to sell for those looking for a gluten-free flour. I will try harvesting and preparing young plants.

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5 Steve Tidwell August 4, 2013 at 16:59

I have an amaranth growing next to my compost bin. Just identified using the info from this site.
Thanks

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6 jasen brown October 26, 2013 at 17:04

I have been thinking about this for a while, if palmer amaranth converts co2 into sugars much faster than corn, it can be used to produce sugar and ethanol, and it grows much faster and easier than corn.Why are we not using this weed to our advantage, farmers that are struggling to produce profits could make large profits if this weed was more acceptable by the main stream.And it would free up our corn crops to be used for just food.

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7 Green Deane October 27, 2013 at 13:28

That is just too brilliant and easy for government forces to recognize or deal with.

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8 Frank Kalinski October 26, 2013 at 22:38

Great article! Does this plant take-up heavy metals or PCBs?
Thanks!

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9 Green Deane October 27, 2013 at 13:18

I’ve not seen any research to that effect.

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10 Nancy Morse November 6, 2013 at 21:00

We bought mountain land in western Virginia. The former owner’s mother had requested – years ago – that they plant that “nice-lookin’ stuff for ground cover.” It was called Kudzu. After it spread on every possible electrical and phone line as well as up buildings, trees and the house, the former owner, to my frantic complaint and plea for a solution, said, “Well, ya just git yourelf a cow.!

Now genetically modified plants, with no defense, are being “out-eaten” by this Palmer amaranth. Well, other than the fact that it is assimilating huge amounts of minerals and salts from the soil, might we regard it as rescuing the land of these excesses from fertilizers?
Hmmm.

Excellent article.

Thank you! nancy morse

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11 W. E. February 28, 2014 at 15:28

Our cows eat pigweed/Palmer amaranth. Our pastures, which tend to be acidic, have not been fertilized, other than with manure from grazing cattle and a little limestone, in fifteen years. So far, Palmer amaranth is not invasive where our cows graze, and the plant poses no danger of toxicity in this natural scenario. Our problem weeds are spiny pigweed and glyphosate-resistant marestail, which the cattle will not graze after the plants begin to mature. The cattle will eat very small plants and seedheads but not the spiny stems, which quickly produce new seedheads after being grazed or mowed. Spiny pigweed is particularly invasive during hot weather where animal manure has enriched the soil as cool season forages slow their growth or go dormant. We have read that spiny pigweed is valued as human food in Africa, Thailand, the Phillippines and the Maldives. Would love to find a good market for it!

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12 leakhena yok July 10, 2014 at 16:56

Just put them in the supermarket. Their a lots of Asians in this country. These are the best vegetable we can have. We love them and it’s hard to fine.

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13 Angie Clouser July 10, 2014 at 19:57

I just read an article in our local paper. It was titled Dangerous weed takes root in Ohio. I have heard alot about Kudzu but they call this Palmer amaranth weed. Is this actually Kudzu or just a similar weed? I have seen what Kudzu is doing in Tenn. I don’t like the idea of it starting here.

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14 Green Deane July 11, 2014 at 07:25

Kudzu and Palmer Amaranth are two very different species. More so kudzu is a vine, the amaranth is a stand up plant.

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15 gopal July 19, 2014 at 03:56

in india we eat the leaves and seeds of amaranth.leaves when tender and seeds as grain like wheat etc.it is gluten free good protien etc.

why go for gmo when mother nature gives better ?

we make flat bread from it.it is tasty and nutty.tastes better than wheat.

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16 tamara July 19, 2014 at 16:47

How is it a spinach relative when spinach is a chenopod and this is the amaranthaceae genus?

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17 Green Deane July 19, 2014 at 19:14

They are botanically related, like people.

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