Thursday, January 13, 2011


Amaranthus mitchellii
I would like to think all my readers had come through the floods unharmed, and with your property more or less intact - though I know that some of you will not have been so fortunate. My heart goes out to those who have suffered grief, or injury. My sympathy also goes to those who are surveying flood-ruined property, and girding themselves to face the tasks of cleaning, repairing and replacing - tasks which I know may take years in some cases.
Meanwhile, most of you have probably been shopping for food by now, as I have, and have glumly surveyed almost empty shelves, with a few bedraggled vegetables and sad-looking fruits being all that’s left of the rich and varied offerings we have come to expect of our supermarkets and greengrocers.
Early white settlers in Australia were quite familiar with the problem, and for them, it had a major effect on their health. They suffered from scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C. They often failed to recognise it, scurvy being thought of as a sailors’ disease, so they called it “Barcoo rot”. In time, they came to realise that eating green leaves cured the problem, and they looked for reasonable-tasting plants which could provide them with what they thought of as “spinach”.

Boggabri was one such plant.

Nowadays, “amaranths” are quite familiar to us, as at least 17 species have been introduced to Australia - most by accident, but some as garden vegetables - and they have become common garden weeds. There are few native amaranths, and they are all plants of the inland. The one called Boggabri  typically grows on periodically flooded sites such as our blacksoil plains. It’s a knee-high annual, with protein-rich seeds and leaves high in Vitamin C.
Amaranths of various kinds, the world over, have a long history of being eaten as leafy vegetables. They have an unfortunate tendency to concentrate nitrates in their leaves. As nitrates are implicated in stomach cancers, this is a concern, albeit a minor one, to users of this plant. The risk is proportionate to the amount of nitrogen in the soil, so plants grown in soil high in artificial nitrogen fertiliser are best avoided, while those wild-picked from poor soil would be safe so long as they are eaten in normal spinach-type quantities - quite enough to keep the “rot” at bay. The tastiest (and safest) leaves, as with all our leafy vegetables, are those of young plants ,which have not yet flowered. (Nitrates accumulate in plants with age.)
If our local Aborigines used this plant at all they probably ate the seeds only. They are very high in protein - probably around 18%. Compare this to grains such an wheat and rice which have about 9-14% protein. Unlike them, amaranth seeds contain complete proteins, so are very suitable for vegetarians.(The "amaranth" seed sold in health food stores comes from South and Central America. Species used are  Amaranthus caudatus, A.cruentus, A. hypochondriacus.)
Boggabri should be planted in a sunny spot, at any frost-free time of year, and needs good soil moisture for the 6-8 weeks growing period. It often “volunteers” in cotton crops, taking advantage of the irrigation period and being regarded as a weed by growers (who also use the name “boggabri” for the much smaller native plant, Amaranthus macrocarpus).
Other plants used by early white settlers used to stave off scurvy include: New Zealand Spinach or “Warrigul Greens” Tetragonia tetragonioides (See Oct 2008), Wandering Sailor Commelina cyanea (See Dec 2008), various saltbushes (March 2009 and Feb 2010), rainforest spinach Elatostema reticulatum and common pigweed, or “purslane” Portulaca oleracea.

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