Redroot Pigweed


Some tasty greens are beginning to emerge. I saw some young lambsquarter recently and now redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus) is showing itself. If you like mild cooked greens reminiscent of beet greens, spinach or Swiss chard this one’s for you. It’s also difficult to confuse with anything else except maybe its prickly cousin the spiny amaranth. You won’t make that mistake twice.

Pigweed has diamond shaped leaves, usually with a little notch in their tips. When less than a foot tall entire plants are smooth and tender. Leaves begin to get rough and hairy as they mature, so if you are planning to consume some, harvest them before flower stalks emerge. Fully grown plants can be over five feet tall. Lower stems and roots on all specimens are a distinctive hot pink color.

This amaranth is a prolific seed producer and will take over a garden if given the chance. It will also depress yields of soybeans, corn and other crops if not controlled. Each plant produces tens of thousands of seeds and they can persist in the soil and be viable for ten years or more. Never throw seed heads in your compost pile.

Pigweed is also resistant to many triazine herbicides used with corn. Many other weed killers aren’t effective either, though numerous ones are. Fortunately pigweed is an annual, so you don’t have to worry about root systems that persist from year to year.

Pigweed is drought tolerant and grows well at warm temperatures in full sun. Removing it before flowers mature is a good control method for homeowners. Pigweed plants are rarely a problem in lawns, because they are mowed regularly and are not allowed to go to seed.

The greens are rich in iron, calcium, niacin, and vitamins A and C. Health wise, there can be a downside, but it’s overrated. Amaranths are high accumulators of nitrates, so on heavily fertilized soils these compounds could potentially reach toxic levels. Nitrate poisoning interferes with our ability to utilize oxygen. It is common in livestock and possible in people under conditions of over fertilization. Nitrate poisoning is also associated with thyroid problems. Old research linked nitrates to cancer, but that has since been disproven.

Many domestic greens like spinach have the same nitrate problem if you can call it that. In small doses nitrates can be beneficial, so don’t worry about the greens unless you know the area received far too much nitrogen. You are much more likely to get a case of Salmonella from domestic greens than suffer nitrate poisoning from eating over fertilized pigweed.

So where is a good place to collect this mild and tender green? I don’t use too much fertilizer in my garden, so there’s a place. Any field not in production is usually a safe bet. Abandoned areas offer great foraging and we have many. We can’t be afraid of everything we might eat since this country imports so much food, particularly fresh fruit and produce. Who knows what other nations use in their farming practices? We have no authority over them nor should we.

young redroot pigweed

Young pigweed plants

Older plants showing developing inflorescence

Older plants showing developing inflorescence

Amaranthus retroflexus showing the "red root"

Amaranthus retroflexus showing the “red root”

 

Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.

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About tedmanzer

I grew up in Old Town Maine and got a B.S. at the University of Maine in Plant Sciences/ minor in Botany. From there I moved to West Virginia and earned a M.S. in Agronomy at WVU. I also met my wife there. She grew up in rural WV as the daughter of tenant farmers who raised cattle and hogs. Their lifestyle at times was one of subsistence and I learned a lot from them. I've always been a foraging buff, but combining my formal botanical knowledge with their practical 'Foxfire-type' background opened up my eyes a little more. I now teach agriculture to high school students at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, NC. My wife teaches with me and we make a great team. I also write a weekly nature/foraging column for the local paper (dailyadvance.com) and frequently publish articles in several other newspapers in northeastern North Carolina. I also have written several Christian nature/adventure novels that I plan to publish eventually. One is a five book family saga I call the 'Forgotten Virtues' series. In the first book, Never Alone, a young boy comes of age after his father dies in a plane crash, and he has to make it alone. Never Alone is now available in paperback, Kindle and Nook. The second book, Strange Courage, takes Carl from his High School graduation to his recovery from a nasty divorce. The third book, Second Chances, takes Carl from his ex-wife's death and the custody of his son to his heroic death at age 59. The fourth book, Promises Kept, depicts how his grandchildren react and adjust to his death. In the final book, Grandfather's Way, his youngest and most timid granddaughter emerges from the shadow of her overachieving family and accomplishes more in four months than most do in a lifetime. I use many foraging references with a lot of the plants I profile in these articles in those books.
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7 Responses to Redroot Pigweed

  1. ive never seen a plant with red roots and you would never think that this small plant would grow to 5 feet tall

  2. I didn’t know a pig weed could get that tall

  3. amandawensel says:

    its strange i would see these sometimes but i never knew what it was exactly, never knew it was edible either

  4. i different kind of plant. think il pass on eating it though healthy as it may seem.

  5. david brice says:

    so that what i chop up the other day by the greenhouses

  6. Tela says:

    I’m sorry, but I don’t believe these photos are of Pigweed. I grow Oregano and your photo looks exactly like it.

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