Foods Indigenous to the Western Hemisphere


Amaranthaceae amaranthus spp.

By Adam Benfer

Pigweed, also known as amaranth, is a family of plants with a wide variety of wild and domesticated species that exist all over the Americas. Some of these plants are known as careless weed, keerless weed, redroot, tumbleweed, quelite (Kindscher 1987: 19), wild beet (Angier [2008] 1974: 82) waterhemp (Steckel 2004), tampala , bledo, huautli (Sauer 1950b: 564), and callaloo (National Research Council and Policy and Global Affairs Division 2006: 37), depending on the regions in which they grow.


The shapes and sizes of amaranth species vary, but they all have medium to large sized alternating simple oval-shaped leaves and stems with some red coloration. A number of upright varieties like Palmer pigweed (A. palmeri) and smooth pigweed (A. hybridus) can grow 3 to 10 feet (1 to 3 meters) tall with stout stems. However, the prostrate pigweed (A. graecizans) grows close to the ground and has smaller leaves.  The greenish flowers of amaranth plants form a dense cluster at the tops of the plants of the upright varieties or among the leaves of the prostrate pigweed. The lens-shaped amaranth seeds are dark brown or black colored in weedy species and light-colored in domestic species (Kindscher 1987: 19).

Geographic Distribution

Amaranth is thought to have originated in the Americas and then spread to Europe, Asia and Africa sometime after European colonization began (Sauer 1967; Sauer 1993). In parts of Asia and Africa these plants have grown in importance as food crops and been developed into ornamental varieties (Sauer 1967). Throughout the Americas amaranth has decreased in cultural importance, but increased in frequency since the Colonial Period. Today amaranth can be found almost everywhere from central Canada to Argentina (Sauer 1950b). Their common name, pigweed, may have comes from its use as fodder for pigs. Pigweed plants are commonly considered to be weeds by farmers and gardeners because they thrive in disturbed soils. Originally these plants would only have been found in prairie-dog towns, buffalo wallows, stream banks, roadsides, and agricultural fields were exposed soils provided them their ideal habitat. As agricultural land was expanded in the Americas by European Americans, pigweeds are thought to have become more common and developed their reputation as an unwanted pest. At the time of initial Euro-American colonization of North America, when only a small portion of exposed soils were present, it is no wonder that the inconspicuous pigweeds were not documented as a common food plant of the Native Americans (Kindscher 1987: 21).

Food Use

While all parts of pigweed plants are edible, some parts have more popular uses than others.  For example the young plants and growing tips of older plants make nutritious vegetables that can be boiled like spinach or eaten raw as salad. The seeds of pigweed are also very nutritious, and can be collected by shaking the tops of the older plants. These seeds may be eaten raw, cooked as hot cereal or mush, ground into flour, popped like popcorn, or any number of ways (Kindscher 1987: 19). Amaranth seeds are high in protein (15 to 16 %), high in fiber content (~8%), and contain nutritionally siginificant levels of Vitamins A and C (Mallory 2007: 57). The greens are rich in iron, calcium, niacin, and vitamins A and C (Hodgson 2001: 78). When choosing amaranth plants to eat remove any sharp spins that may be present on some varieties. Also, stay away from plants growing along major highways or that may have been sprayed with herbicides, because of the dangers of lead poisoning from automobile exhaust or other poisons (Hodgson 2001: 79). 

Amerindians in South, Central, and North America commonly used amaranth as a vegetable and a grain. In the Prairie Bioregion of North America, prostrate pigweed (A. grae’cizans L.) and the redroot pigweed (A. retroflexus L.) were most familiar to indigenous populations, although their use as food is not well documented. Amerindian populations in the Southwest and Great Basin regions (such as the Navaho, Tewa, Zuni, Havasupai, Yuman, Apache, and other Pueblo Indians) used the greens and seeds of pigweeds more extensively, and may have even cultivated some varieties. It has also been recorded that the native tribes as far north as Montana ate the leaves and seeds of the prostrate pigweed. The traditional Zuni myth that the seeds of prostrate pigweed were scattered over the surface of the earth by the rain priests demonstrates the cultural importance that this plant once had for these people. The Zuni have a recipe in which they make a meal out of ground amaranth seeds and black corn, which they mix with water, form into balls (or pats), and steam them on a grid of slender sticks fixed over a pot of boiling water (Kindscher 1987: 20).

The Aztecs of Mesoamerica also cultivated amaranth as one of their major crops. This crop, locally known as huauhtli in nauhatl and bledo in Spanish was used to make idols of dough ,called zoale, that represented the war god Huitzilopochtli. These idols were used during a festival, which took place in May, honoring this god. The dough was made out of milled amaranth and toasted corn seeds mixed with honey or maguey sap. During the festival these idols are broken up, distributed, and eaten in a communion ceremony (Sauer 1950b: 568). The Aztecs used amaranth during at least six other seasonal festivals honoring various deities. The Aztecs also made tortillas and tamales out of amaranth flour along and used the greens, as well (569). Since the use of this plant was considered as sacrilegious by the Colonial authorities its use declined quickly during the Colonial Period. Today some parts of Mexico continue to create a popped amaranth confection called alegría with is similar to zoale (578).

Other Uses

Some varieties of amaranths have been used to produce a natural food coloring dye used to give a reddish tint to corn wafers, corn beer (chicha), and other products (Heiser 1964; Sauer 1950a; unknown 1895). Amaranth has some medicinal applications as well. Besides being a nutritious vegetable and grain, recent studies show that amaranth oil may benefit patients with cardiovascular disease (Martirosyan et al. 2007).


Angier, Bradford

[2008] 1974     Field guide to edible wild plants (revised & updated). 2 ed. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books.

Heiser, Charles B., Jr.

1964    Sangorache, an Amaranth Used Ceremonially in Ecuador. American Anthropologist 66(1): 136-140.

Hodgson, Wendy C.

2001    Food plants of the Sonoran Desert. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Kindscher, Kelly

1987    Edible wild plants of the prairie : an ethnobotanical guide. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas.

Mallory, Melanie Ann

2007    Development and characterization of microsatellite markers for the grain Amaranths (Amaranthus Spp. L.).

Martirosyan, Danik M, et al.

2007    Amaranth oil application for coronary heart disease and hypertension. Lipids in Health and Disease 6(1).

National Research Council, and Development Policy and Global Affairs Division, Security, and Cooperation (DSC),

2006    Amaranth. In Lost Crops of Africa: Volume II: Vegetables. Vol. 2. Pp. 35-51. Lost Crops of Africa. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Sauer, Jonathan D.

1950a  Amaranths as Dye Plants among the Pueblo Peoples. Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6(4): 412-415.

1950b  The Grain Amaranths: A Survey of Their History and Classification. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 37(4): 561-632.

1967    The Grain Amaranths and Their Relatives: A Revised Taxonomic and Geographic Survey. Annals of the Missouri Botanical Garden 54(2): 103-137.

1993    Historical geography of crop plants : a select roster. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

Steckel, Larry

2004    Early Season Pigweed Identification. T.U.o.T. Extension, ed: The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture.


1895    Pigments Used by Children in Their Play. The Journal of American Folklore 8(29): 151.


2d entry:


By Scott Sheu

            There are several types of plants commonly known as “pigweed.”  However, the two most standard plants to be called that name are the Dysphania ambrosioides and the Amaranthus palmeri.  The Amaranthus palmeri is native to North America, while Dysphania ambrosioides is native to Central America and is more commonly known as epazote.


Amaranthus palmeri

Palmer’s pigweed, careless weed, Palmer’s amaranth

            Pigweed is a name used for several members of the Amaranthus family, though it usually refers to the Amaranthus palmeri.  Despite the unappetizing name, pigweed is an edible plant and one that was important to the American Indians in the southwestern North America and Central America. 

Geographical Description

            The Amaranthus palmeri is native to eastern North America, stretching from northwest Mexico up through California and throughout the American Southwest.  The Amaranthus family was important to ancient Native cultures.  The Aztecs considered it a vital grain, and used it in rituals and in a variety of dishes.  The pigweed was cultivated by the Southwestern American Indians as a useful and nutrient-heavy plant.

The pigweed can now be found throughout the United States, but is considered an invasive weed species nowadays.

Botanical Description

            The Amaranthus palmeri plant is leafy and somewhat tall.  They typically grow around 3-6 feet tall but can reach up to 15 feet in native growing conditions.  Its leaves are broad, lance-shaped, and anywhere from 2-8 inches long.  They are green with prominent white veins underneath and have long petioles. 

The pigweed’s green flowers are very small and grow in dense, cone-shaped clusters at the top of the plant.  Male and female flowers grow on different plants.  When mature and dry, the flower spikes are scratchy and tough.  They produce tiny, dark, and shiny seeds.

Culinary Usage

            For American Indians, pig weed or Amaranthus palmeri was one of the few dependable summer vegetables in a desert environment.  They would frequently consume the vegetable while waiting for the corn and beans to be harvested (NRC). Oftentimes the leaves would be rolled into balls and baked to save for the winter.

            The Mohave and Yuma cooked or baked the fresh pigweed greens as a vegetable, while the Pima would eat the greens with corn (Moerman).  Navajo ground the seeds to use in food or as a sweetener.  The Papago Tribe also consumed the seeds and leaves as well as the seed baskets, which they sun-dried. 

            In Mexico, the seeds are still used to make candy by baking them with honey.  The young leaves of the pigweed can be cooked like spinach.  It must be warned, however, that pigweed growing in fertilized soil cannot be consumed.

Other Usages

            The Hopi, Pueblo, and other Southwestern American Indians made a reddish dye out of the Amaranthus palmeri seeds.



Dahl, Kevin. "Amaranth: A Delicious Weed." Edible Phoenix (Spring 2007). Web.

Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

National Research Council (U.S.). Advisory Committee on Technology Innovation. Amaranth Modern Prospects for an Ancient Crop. Washington, D.C.: National Academy, 1984. Print.

Roebuck, Paul. Ethnobotany of the Early Navajo. Dyckman Roebuck Arcaheology. Print.

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Dysphania ambrosioides

Pigweed, bean herb, American wormseed, Jesuit’s Tea, sweet pigweed, skunkweed, West Indian goosefoot. 

            Also known as pigweed, the epazote is a key herb in Mexican and Carribean cooking.  Yet the herb has not gained much popularity outside of its native Central America because of its extremely pungent odor, which wards off people unfamiliar with the plant.

Geographical Description

            The epazote is native to the tropical regions of Central and South America.  The herb was used by ancient civilizations such as the Aztecs.  Indeed, the name “epazote” derives from the Aztecan name for it, epazotl, which itself is a combination of the words epatl (skunk) and tzotl (filth) due to its strong stench (American Heritage Dic). 

The epazote continues to be a popular plant to this day.  It grows rapidly and easily; its abundance in the wild makes it a widely available herb.  The epazote has also been naturalized in North America, particularly California, and introduced to Europe by the conquistadors.  In these parts of the world, the epazote is known as a weed and not recognized for its culinary potential.

Botanical Description

            The epazote is a short-lived, green-colored plant that grows up to around 1.2 meters tall.  It has serrated, oblong leaves grown on slim green stalks that branch out from the base.  The aromatic leaves are sticky and turn from a tender green to a coarse red when matured. 

            The epazote’s small flowers grow in clustered spikes of the same light green color.  It produces numerous oval seeds that are small and reddish-brown.

Culinary Usage

            The epazote was central to Aztecan cooking and is used in many modern Central American cuisines.  Its fresh and dried leaves are used as herbs, though the flowers, stalks, and seeds can also be used in this manner.  The epazote has a strong, bitter, and faintly lemony taste.  The red, mature leaves are often dried for later usage.

            The epazote is added to cooked dishes such as soups and rice.  It can also be used fresh for salads.  The epazote is best known for its anti-flatulent properties, thus making it an especially popular additive in bean dishes.  It is commonly added at the end of the cooking process to avoid excess bitterness.

            The leaves are also sometimes added to teas in Latin America.

Other Usages

            The epazote is also employed for medicinal purposes, most commonly in tea-form as a way to expel intestinal parasites. In Haiti, the epazote shoot is rubbed onto the skin to kill parasites (Duke).  A tea made of the leaves can also be used to treat digestive problems and dysentery.  The epazote is also ingested to treat coughs and asthma.

            The leaves were used by the Catawba Tribe for snakebites and other poisonings, while Peruvians have also been know to apply the leaves to treat arthritis (Staub & Buchert)..  The epazote has also been used as a contraceptive.  In fact, research of the epazote lead to the first commercial birth-control pill in the 1960s (Staub & Buchert).




Davidson, Alan. The Oxford Companion to Food. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Duke, James A., Mary Jo Bogenschutz-Godwin, and Andrea R. Ottesen. Duke's Handbook of Medicinal Plants of Latin America. Boca Raton: Taylor & Francis, 2009. Print.

Hutson, Lucinda. The Herb Garden Cookbook: the Complete Gardening and Gourmet Guide. Austin, TX: University of Texas, 2003. Google Books. Web.

Raghavan, Susheela. Handbook of Spices, Seasonings, and Flavorings. Boca Raton, FL: CRC/Taylor & Francis, 2007. Google Books. Web.

Tucker, Arthur O., Thomas DeBaggio, Francesco DeBaggio, and Arthur O. Tucker. The Encyclopedia of Herbs: a Comprehensive Reference to Herbs of Flavor and Fragrance. Portland: Timber, 2009. Print.