By Larry Hodgson
Botanical name: Amaranthus caudatus.
Common Names: Love-lies-bleeding, foxtail amaranth, pendant amaranth, pendant flower, kiwicha
Height: 3–8 feet (90–240 cm).
Spacing: 18 to 24 inches (45–60 cm).
Seeding Depth: Barely cover.
Germination: 10–15 days at 70–75 ̊ F (21–24 ̊C).
Transplantation: after last frost.
Location: Full sun.
Soil: Well drained, average to poor.
Flowering: From early summer to early fall.
Multiplication: From seed in spring.
Availability: Seed packets, bedding plants.
Use: Flower garden, specimen plant, background, screen, temporary hedge, flower meadow, cut flower, dried flower, edible plant, attracts birds.
True enough, the name love-lies-bleeding can seem like a bit of a downer and indeed, the flower stands for hopeless love or hopelessness in the language of flowers, but even so, this tall annual with tender green leaves is actually very striking: a gorgeous plant producing long trailing flower spikes in red or green depending on the cultivar, even pink in the case of the new cultivar ‘Coral Mountain’. It’s just totally charming!
Our great-grandmothers knew love-lies-bleeding well: it was a classic Victorian bedding plant, often seen in photos of flower beds in the late 19th and early 20th century. However, it hadn’t been all that popular recently, largely because it grows a little too quickly in the eyes of plant nurseries: they prefer short annuals that fit better on their shelves. But with all due respect to horticulturalists, the wonderful annuals of the past are well worth rediscovering. If your garden center doesn’t offer trays of this love-lies-bleeding to plant out in late spring, simply grow your own from seed!
While love-lies-bleeding is best known as an ornamental plant in Europe and North America, did you also know that this plant was originally cultivated as an edible plant? Developed as a cereal crop in Central America, then spreading south into South America, amaranth or grain amaranth, as it is called when grown for human consumption, was a staple food for the Mayans, Aztecs and Incas. Moreover, they also considered it sacred and used it in their religious rites. They likewise developed a blood-red dye from amaranth, arguably a factor in their worship of the plant, as they believed blood was spiritually powerful.
Not many people worship love-lies-bleeding these days, but its use as an edible plant continues to this day. Both this species (A. caudata) and several others (A. hybridus, A. hypochondriacus, etc.) are widely grown throughout not only in Latin America, where one sees vast fields of amaranth, but also in Asia (especially India) and Africa. Increasingly, it’s being used as a food crop in Europe and North America as well. Maybe you could try some in your vegetable garden this summer?
Amaranth: Edible from Head to Foot!
Pretty much every part of a love-lies-bleeding plant is edible.
First, it can be grown for its tart-tasting leaves, although you should harvest them early in the season while they are still tender. They taste mulch like spinach (Spinacia oleracea) and indeed, both plants belong to the Amaranthaceae family. You can use them the same way as you would spinach too, either cooked or raw, in just about any recipe requires a bit of sweet-and-sour greenery.
Also, you can harvest and consume the nutty-tasting seeds, produced in long cords that sometimes drip to the ground. They’re extremely nutritious and rich in protein. Remove the outer shell by rubbing the seeds against a screen, then blow away the chaff. Try cooking amaranth grain for 20 to 30 minutes in 2 times the volume of boiling water. You can then use the swollen, softened seeds in patties, porridge, soups, risottos, stews and host of other recipes.
Or grind the seeds into flour and mix them with 3 parts wheat flour to make breads and cakes that are softer and richer in protein than wheat alone. If you can’t tolerate gluten, mix them into rice flour instead.
You can also be sauté amaranth grains in hot oil and they’ll pop like mini-popcorn, much to the delight of kids.
Or go full 21st century and grow amaranth seeds as sprouts and microgreens, thus providing nutrition and color you can add to your everyday meals in any season.
This Plant is for the Birds
And if you have enough left over, why not share your harvest with your fine feathered friends? That can be as simple as just leaving the plants standing as winter comes on (frost will kill the plant, but the seeds are still good) or you can just hang some long “ropes” of seeds from a feeder in late fall so that birds can come and feast on them throughout the winter.
Love-lies-bleeding is fast growing and requires little care except watering in times of severe drought. Plant or sow it in full sun and it will pretty much take care of itself!
For a head start on the season, sow seeds indoors 6–8 weeks before the last frost date. Since the seedlings don’t appreciate root disturbance, sow them in peat pots, barely covering them with soil. Don’t plant out until both the soil and the air have warmed up: love-lies-bleeding is definitely not cold tolerant!
You can also sow seeds directly outdoors once there is no longer any risk of frost. That’s how I always grew it as a child.
Some garden centers do carry trays of love-lies-bleeding plants. If so, look for young plants that have not yet starting blooming, as overly mature plants tend to remain stunted when you plant them in the garden.
Love-lies-bleeding: whether you grow it as an ornamental or edible plant or even as a source of food for wild birds, it’s an impressive plant with a lot to offer!