Friday, September 28, 2012

Amaranth, Sunflowers and Jerusalem Artichokes

This is my version of the Remarkable Plants of Texas for September's  program.  While I could not find a reference to Jerusalem artichokes in the book Remarkable Plants of Texas by Matt Warner Turner, they are definitely a sunflower.

Even though I wanted to present the herb club members with edible (maybe not delectable) choices of cooked sunflowers I found that the truly edible varieties are not present in quantity in our area, and were not to be found in the area of the Hill Country I was visiting, either.  So, I thought, we will just try these very abundant silverleaf sunflowers and see what happens.  Well, as it turned out, not much happened.  The buds do look like they would make a nice edible dish, but the ones I tried burned.  I hope to reclaim the pot.  As for boiling the seed heads to get the oil, nope, that didn't happen either.  I did get some nicely colored water and you will get the color, dingy greenish brown.  NO OIL at all.  I am pretty sure, though, the sap could be used as a glue, as my fingers were very sticky.
So onto the program and here it is:

Amaranth – Amaranthus spp.

The genus has some of the oldest and most important food plants in the world. Cultivated and uncultivated produce thousands of tiny seeds. They are very fine but very nutritious. Most varieties have a very high protein content. Up to 16% - higher than most varieties of wheat which is 12-14%, rice 7-10%, and corn 9-10%.
Amaranth protein is rich in lysine, an amino acid that is low in most other cereal. Its lysine content twice that of wheat and three times that of corn. It also contains more fiber, calcium, and oil than most other grains.

The Aztecs used amaranth as a grain and considered the plant a symbol of immortality.

From Wikipedia
Kiwicha, as amaranth is known today in the Andes, was one of the staple foodstuffs of the Incas. Known to the Aztecs as huautli, it is thought to have represented up to 80% of their caloric consumption before the conquest. Another important use of amaranth throughout Mesoamerica was to prepare ritual drinks and foods. To this day, amaranth grains are toasted much like popcorn and mixed with honey, molasses or chocolate to make a treat called alegría, meaning "joy" in Spanish. Diego Duran described the festivities for Huitzilopochtli, a blue hummingbird god. (Real hummingbirds feed on amaranth flowers.) The Aztec month of Panquetzaliztli (7 December to 26 December) was dedicated to Huitzilopochtli. People decorated their homes and trees with paper flags; there were ritual races, processions, dances, songs, prayers, and finally human sacrifices. This was one of the more important Aztec festivals, and the people prepared for the whole month. They fasted or ate very little; a statue of the god was made out of amaranth (huautli) seeds and honey, and at the end of the month, it was cut into small pieces so everybody could eat a little piece of the god. After the Spanish conquest, cultivation of amaranth was outlawed, while some of the festivities were subsumed into the Christmas celebration.
Because of its importance as a symbol of indigenous culture, its gluten-free palatability, easy to cook, and its protein particularly well suited to human nutritional needs, interest in grain amaranth (especially A. cruentus and A. hypochondriacus) revived in the 1970s. It was recovered in Mexico from wild varieties and is now commercially cultivated. It is a popular snack sold in Mexico, sometimes mixed with chocolate or puffed rice, and its use has spread to Europe and parts of North America. Amaranth and quinoa are called pseudograins because of their flavor and cooking similarities to grains. 


Sunflower (Helianthus annuus L.) is one of the few crop species that originated in North America (most originated in the fertile crescent, Asia or South or Central America). It was probably a "camp follower" of several of the western native American tribes who domesticated the crop (possibly 1000 BC) and then carried it eastward and southward of North America. The first Europeans observed sunflower cultivated in many places from southern Canada to Mexico.

Sunflower was probably first introduced to Europe through Spain, and spread through Europe as a curiosity until it reached Russia where it was readily adapted. Selection for high oil in Russia began in 1860 and was largely responsible for increasing oil content from 28% to almost 50%. The high-oil lines from Russia were reintroduced into the U.S. after World War II, which rekindled interest in the crop. However, it was the discovery of the male-sterile and restorer gene system that made hybrids feasible and increased commercial interest in the crop. Production of sunflowers subsequently rose dramatically in the Great Plains states as marketers found new niches for the seeds as an oil crop, a birdseed crop, and as a human snack food. Production in these regions in the 1980s has declined mostly because of low prices, but also due to disease, insect and bird problems. Sunflower acreage is now moving westward into dryer regions; however, 85% of the North American sunflower seed is still produced in North and South Dakota and Minnesota.

From the book:
Sixteen or more species in the state of Texas.

It is phototrophic aka heliotrophic, meaning it follows the sum. Even before the flowers open the leaves and buds follow the course of the sun, facing toward the east in the morning, straight up at noon, and sharply toward the west in the late afternoon. At night the leaves point downward, while ther terminal buds face toward the sky, gradually leaning eastward again as dawn approaches. Once the flowers open and first ray florets unfurl, the stems below the flower heads harden and the flowers freeze in a position tilted toward the east or northeast. The Kiowa Indian name for the sunflower , ho-son-u, literally meaning “looking at you.”

Both current and historical uses for the sunflower are manifold. The seeds are the most obvious part used. They are eaten raw or roasted. But their main use is for the oil. Native Americans obtained the oil by boiling the seeds and skimming it off. They used it for cooking as well as for mixing ceremonial paint. The Caddo added ground sunflower seeds to cornmeal for cakes or tamales. They also added it to porridge or rolled it with roasted corn into small balls called bogan. The Apaches made a bread of it. The fine long fibers from the sunflower stems have been used for thread, cordage, and paper. The coagulated sap was used for chewing gum by the Kiowa.

The small unopened flower heads can be eaten whole and are said to taste similar to artichokes. They have been found in corprolites in the lower Pecos dating back to 6000BC!

They have also been used for dye.

By the way, I reclaimed the pot by soaking ammonia in it for several days, with the lid on to keep the fumes contained. I brushed it and then used a Brillo pad to shine it. Looks as good as new and it is 30 years old stainless Farberware.

1 comment:

Herbie said...

Thanks for all of the good information on your September program!