Sunday, September 28, 2014

Red Amaranth Seeds

Weather: Rain Monday night; last rain 9/22.

What’s blooming in the area: Silver lace vine, datura, morning glories, bouncing Bess, sweet pea, Russian sage, red amaranth, zinnias from new seeds and reseeds, African marigolds from seed, Maximilian sunflowers, pampas grass.

Beyond the walls and fences: Pink and white bindweed, goat’s head, stickleaf, leatherleaf globemallow, Queen Anne’s lace, pigweed, ragweed, chamisa, Hopi tea, snakeweed broom, broom senecio, native sunflowers, goldenrod, áñil del muerto, golden hairy, heath and purple asters.

In my yard, looking east: Large-flowered soapwort, hollyhocks, winecup mallow.

Looking south: Betty Prior and floribunda roses.

Looking west: Catmint, calamintha, David phlox.

Looking north: Yellow potentilla, hosta, Mexican hat, black-eyed Susan, chocolate flower, blanket flower, anthemis, coreopsis, chrysanthemum.

In the open, along the drive: Buddleia, white yarrow.

Bedding plants: Blue salvia, French marigold.

Seeds: Larkspur, reseeded Sensation cosmos from last year’s plants, yellow cosmos.

Animal sightings: Geckos, small birds, bees, grasshoppers, hornets, large and small black ants.

Weekly update: Whenever I hear people argue there’s no such thing as species alteration, I think how isolated we’ve grown from our agrarian past when peoples’ lives depended on observing plants.

For years anthropologists believed farming had been invented one time in the middle east about ten thousand year ago. They assumed the activity was too complex to have been created more than once. They, of course, were thinking of farming as they knew it, not as it had been.

In 1961, Richard MacNeish reported evidence for separate invention in the Tehuacán valley southeast of Puebla, México. In the Coxcatlán rock shelter his team found seeds for moschata squash and amaranth in strata dating between 4700 and 4300 bc. The National Research Council has identified the last as a form of Amaranthus cruentus.

The red-leaved plant was not native to the area. The dark-seeded annuals descended from Amaranthus hybrida in what is now Guatemala and southern México. The seeds found ready for threshing in Coxcatlán had been selected for their light color.

Given an opportunity, the wind-pollinated cruentus interbreeds with its neighbors. In Guatemala, it mates with its parent hybrida. In México, the plants cross with the local grain amaranth, Amaranth hypochondriacus.

Two thousand years later, a Franciscan friar, Bernardino de Sahagún, recorded the plants important to the Aztecs. He himself probably knew little about farming - he was from a family wealthy enough to send him to the royal university at Salamanca. He transcribed what his informants said without obvious editorial revision.

In the 1570s, natives of the Mexican valley distinguished the types of amaranth in their area by their seeds. Bird amaranth had a white seed. Another had seeds that were red or black. The mirror stone amaranth had glistening black seeds, while those of the one now identified as hypochondriacus were described as becoming like "coarse sand."

The last was the one used to make the blood and dough figures that were distributed during festivals honoring Huitzilopochtli. The Spanish were so horrified by what they saw as a mockery of the Eucharist that they suppressed both the festival and the grain. Soldiers aren’t trained to discriminate between types. They destroyed all cultivated amaranths.

Cruentus survived as a crop in Oaxaca and Guatemala. In 1947, Jonathan Sauer found both dark- and light-seeded varieties. The later were preferred for tortillas, and used "in various other ways, much like maize." The dark seeds were used only for tortillas.

In the late nineteenth century, Jesse Walter Fewkes reported a red-topped amaranth was being used by the Hopi to dye the red flat bread used in kachina rituals. Alfred Whiting said they still were growing red-leaved amaranths in irrigated, raised beds in the 1930s.

Matilda Coxe Stevenson saw Zuñi women tending the annuals in small gardens around their villages in the 1890s. Like the neighboring Hopi, they used it to dye the thin wafer bread used in ceremonies.

The anthropologists didn’t note the seed color. Sauer says morphological features indicate the southwestern red amaranth is a dark-seeded strain of cruentus created by selection.

Selecting seed is time consuming. After World War II, mass marketing made it easy to buy packaged seeds. Then, economies of scale made it less expensive to buy finished products that seeds.

When Sauer returned to Guatemala in 1967, red amaranth no longer was treated as a crop. He still saw plants growing on the edges of milpas and in dooryard gardens. But, they were naturalized plants with dark seeds. No one had kept light-colored ones.

In the 1960s, he says the Hopi were substituting commercial food coloring for ko’mo. The Zuñi no longer were bothering to select the best l’shilowa yäl’tok a seeds. They used reseeded plants that had interbred with a local green amaranth species, Powellii.

As the plants growing in the Española valley this summer show, when plants are neglected, species that have been selected can degenerate. It takes human effort to keep some strains pure. Thousands of years aren’t enough time to stabilize them.

Fewkes, J. Walter. "A Contribution to Ethnobotany," American Anthropologist 9:14-21:1896.

MacNeish, Richard Stockton. Tehuacán Archaeological-Botanical Project, Annual Report, 1961. More on his work appears in the post for 21 February 2010.

_____. The Prehistory of the Tehuacán Valley, volume 5, 1972.

National Research Council. Amaranth: Modern Prospects for an Ancient Crop, 1984, edited by F. R. Ruskin.

Sahagún, Bernardino de. Historia Universal de las Cosas de Nueva España, c.1577, translated as Florentine Codex: General History of the Things of New Spain, Book XI - Earthly Things by Charles E. Dibble and Arthur J. O. Anderson, 1963.

Sauer, Jonathan D. "Amaranths as Dye Plants among the Pueblo Indians," Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6:412-415:1950.

_____. "The Grain Amaranths and Their Relatives: A Revised Taxonomic and Geographic Survey," Missouri Botanical Garden, Annals 54:103-137:1967.

Stevenson, Matilda Coxe. Ethnobotany of the Zuñi Indians (1915).

Whiting, Alfred F. Ethnobotany of the Hopi (1939).

1. Red amaranth growing near village, 17 August 2012.

2. This year’s offspring of #1, same location, 4 September 2014.

3. Red amaranth seed, purchased from Native Seeds/Search. It appears black when it comes from the package.

4. Unidentified amaranth in Florentine Codex, illustration 963, after Francisco del Paso y Troncoso. His version of the codex was published in three volumes in 1906 and 1907.

5. Red amaranth seed, purchased from Horizon Seeds. One seed is redder than the others. All Sauer and others say is light and dark, but not how light or dark.

6. Red amaranth seed, purchased from All Good Things Organic. The lighter colored seed looks like an unviable one that won’t sprout if its planted.

7. Local green amaranth in my yard, 13 August 2012. The earliest leaves and the stems are reddish.

8. Reseeds from #1, growing behind the 2012 plants; 4 September 2014.

9. Reseeds from #1, growing across drive from 2012 plants; 4 September 2014. Differences in height probably are due to differences in runoff from the road.

10. Red amaranth seeds, purchased from Seeds of Change. Similarities between seeds from different vendors may be inherent in the species, or may be because many seed companies purchase their stock from the same wholesale source.

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