Heritage Grains

By Laura McKissack

Heritage grains are those that have remained much the same, genetically speaking, as when early European, Andean and Aztec farmers tilled their fields, and they’ve played a huge role in supporting ancient societies. Quinoa, for example, has sustained the people of the Andes for thousands of years, and amaranth—revered as a holy plant and an essential source of nutrition by the ancient Aztecs—was once banned by Spanish conquistadores who believed its great importance to the people to be idolatrous.

These grains are gaining popularity as substitutes for much of the wheat and other grains that have been modified to provide the highest yields and fewest diseases possible—sometimes at the expense of flavor and nutrition. Also, many heritage grains are important to those intolerant to gluten, found in wheat protein. But aside from being great alternatives to wheat products, heritage grains are packed with flavor and nutrition and bring a great diversity of taste and texture to the palate. Cooked, they are excellent in salads, casseroles and breads and are a nutritious alternative to oatmeal. 

In Central Texas, one of the easiest of these grains to grow is amaranth, and there are several varieties to choose from. Some, like Green Callaloo or Joseph’s Coat (a favorite of Thomas Jefferson), are best grown for their leaves and provide a nutritious addition to summer salads. The larger, tougher leaves are delicious tossed in olive oil and grilled in a grill basket. Others, such as Burgundy or Golden Giant amaranth, can be grown for their seed and make gorgeous, striking centerpieces as they can grow to over eight feet tall with brilliant golden and burgundy plumes that stay lush and keep their color well into late summer. In the garden or landscape, amaranth enjoys full sun, is very heat-hardy and can be planted directly in the ground about a quarter-inch deep after the last threat of frost. It’s usually among the first things to sprout up—roughly three to ten days to germination.

Amaranth seed can be harvested once the seed heads have matured and are beginning to lose their color. Test readiness by plucking one frond and rubbing it between your palms over a plate. If the seeds fall out easily and have a bit of a crunch to them, they are ready. To harvest the rest, you’ll need a bowl or bag to catch the seeds in as they’re worked out, and some sort of strainer set over it to catch the larger chaff and stems while letting the seeds fall through. Pluck the fronds from the main stem and work them between your hands over the strainer until most of the seeds have fallen out. What will be left is a quantity of small chaff and seeds. The chaff of amaranth is heavier than that of wheat and other grains, and the seed lighter, so winnowing must be done carefully. One method is to place a handful of seed at a time on a plate and blow gently while rolling the seeds toward you. (The chaff is edible, so no need to worry about getting every last bit.) The yield varies based on the varietal as well as the growing conditions. 

There are, of course, heritage wheats, millets and barleys, as well, and several of our local growers and artisans are making good use of them. Chip McElroy at Live Oak Brewing Company is the only brewmaster in Texas who uses heritage wheat and other grains in his brewing process—lending a malty sweetness to the beers. Larry Butler of Boggy Creek Farm also grows heritage wheat, and is trying a new variety called Sonora this year that was handed down by a friend. And several Central Texas farms, including Richardson Farms and Bar W Farm and Ranch, are growing unadulterated wheat and other grains, and are making their flours available at many of our local farmers markets and area restaurants.

There are many reasons to explore heritage grains. Not only are they easy on the digestive system and highly flavorful and nutritious, but they are incredibly versatile in cooking and even easy to grow. Consider delving into the rich history of these seeds of the past, and try a few in the garden this spring. 


Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co.
2278 Baker Creek Road
Mansfield, MO 65704
Phone: 417-924-8917
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Bar W Farm and Ranch
Route 1, Box 273

Boggy Creek Farm
3414 Lyons Road
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Coyote Creek Organic Farm and Feed Mill
13817 Klaus Lane
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Richardson Farms
2850 County Road 412
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Seeds of Change
P.O. Box 4908
Rancho Dominguez, CA 90220