Dear Readers, I do love a display of a single species of plant, especially when it is as striking as this one. I love it even more when it’s only a thirty-second walk from my house! As we move towards autumn, it becomes harder and harder to find ‘weeds’ that I haven’t covered yet, but this stunning annual more than makes up for it. I suspect that the plants are a mixture of ‘typical’ Love-lies-bleeding, with the deep red tassels, and Amaranthus caudatus var. viridis, for the green tassels.
This splendid plant comes originally from the Andes, where it is known as Kiwicha. Some amaranth species have naturalised in parts of the UK, where they are believed to have been introduced in grain crops or in pet food. However, the plant has played a important role in human nutrition: it is believed that the seeds from the amaranth plant accounted for up to 80% of the protein needs of the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America before the Spanish conquest. Even today, the grains are toasted and mixed with chocolate, honey or molasses to make a drink called Allegria, which means ‘joy’ (and very joyful it sounds too). Skull shapes are made with amaranth grain and honey for the Day of the Dead celebrations in Mexico.
The leaves and stems have been used extensively in many parts of the world, from India to West Africa to the Caribbean, where Amaranthus tricolor is known as Callaloo. In the Yoruba language, it is known as shoko, which is a shortened form of shokoyokoto (meaning ‘make the husband fat’) or arowo jeja (meaning ‘we have money left over for fish’). Amaranths are highly nutritious plants: the seeds contain up to 14% protein, while the leaves are a rich source of Vitamins A and C. Like many staple foods, it has kept populations going for millenia.
As you might expect from those red flower heads, the plant contains a high concentration of betacyanins, which can be used as a dye. One variety is actually called ‘Hopi Red Dye’, after the Hopi tradition of creating red corn bread using the amaranth to colour it. If you have a garden full of love-lies-bleeding and wanted to have a bash at some dyeing, there is a lovely article here to send you on your way.
Incidentally, the food colouring called Amaranth was banned as a carcinogen in the US in 1976, but is still used to colour Maraschino cherries in the UK. It is named for the colour of the chemical but is not actually extracted from the plant, so we can breathe easy on that score.
The flowers on Love-lies-bleeding look so much like the millet that I used to feed to my budgerigar when I was a child that I’d be interested to know if any of you have grown members of this family and have noticed any bird activity.
The name ‘amaranth’ comes from the Greek for ‘not fading’ – it has long been a symbol of immortality, as in this translation of Aesop’s fable:
A Rose and an Amaranth blossomed side by side in a garden,
and the Amaranth said to her neighbour,
“How I envy you your beauty and your sweet scent!
No wonder you are such a universal favourite.”
But the Rose replied with a shade of sadness in her voice,
“Ah, my dear friend, I bloom but for a time:
my petals soon wither and fall, and then I die.
But your flowers never fade, even if they are cut;
for they are everlasting.”
Indeed, the mythological ‘Amaranth’ appears in the poetry of Milton, Shelley, Tennyson and others as a symbol of everlasting life, though I doubt that these poets would ever have seen a love-lies-bleeding.
In the Victorian language of flowers, the plant came to stand for ‘hopeless, undying love’.
And now a poem, and by William Wordsworth no less (I was tempted by Algernon Swinburne but it was a bit too florid even for me). Wordsworth comments that:
“How touching and beautiful were, in most instances, the names they gave to our indigenous flowers, or any other they were familiarly acquainted with! — Every month for many years have we been importing plants and flowers from all quarters of the globe, many of which are spread through our gardens, and some, perhaps, likely to be met with on the few Commons which we have left. Will their botanical names ever be displaced by plain English appellations, which will bring them home to our hearts by connection with our joys and sorrows?”
And I think he has a point. At what point will Buddleia, for example, get a ‘proper’ vernacular name (though it’s true that many people know it as Butterfly Bush). It seems that a plant hasn’t really ‘made it’ until it has a nickname. Maybe we could make some up.
by William Wordsworth
You call it,
Love lies bleeding, — so you may,
Though the red Flower, not prostrate, only droops,
As we have seen it here from day to day,
From month to month, life passing not away:
A flower how rich in sadness! Even thus stoops,
(Sentient by Grecian sculpture’s marvellous power)
Thus leans, with hanging brow and body bent
Earthward in uncomplaining languishment
The dying Gladiator. So, sad Flower!
(‘T is Fancy guides me willing to be led,
Though by a slender thread,)
So drooped Adonis bathed in sanguine dew
Of his death-wound, when he from innocent air
The gentlest breath of resignation drew;
While Venus in a passion of despair
Rent, weeping over him, her golden hair
Spangled with drops of that celestial shower.
She suffered, as Immortals sometimes do;
But pangs more lasting far, that Lover knew
Who first, weighed down by scorn, in some lone bower
Did press this semblance of unpitied smart
Into the service of his constant heart,
His own dejection, downcast Flower! could share
With thine, and gave the mournful name which thou wilt ever bear.
Photo One By Abbie yang – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22558877
Photo Two By Xufanc – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10608050