Hopi Red Dye Amaranth

Botanical name:

Amaranthus cruentus

Local Hopi name:

Komo

Collection site:

Lower Moenkopi, Hopi Reservation, Arizona

Historical origins:

Amaranth is native to the Americas, and is believed to have been wild harvested for centuries before being domesticated around 4,000 BC. Domesticated amaranth has larger seeds and plants compared to wild amaranths. It was likely domesticated in central Mexico and spread to the Southwestern United States.

Culinary uses:

The pink to magenta-colored flower bracts of Komo are soaked in water overnight, and mixed into cornmeal the following day to color dough for making Hopi piki bread. Piki is a thin wafer bread that resembles tissue paper. It is cooked on a thin stone slab, oiled with ground seeds of squash or watermelon. After cooking the batter the piki is rolled up. Zuni peoples also use the pink bracts to dye he’we or maize wafer bread. The black seeds of komo can be popped, and the leaves of this amaranth are eaten and used similar to spinach.

Nutritional benefits:

Amaranth grain possesses large amounts of protein, beneficial fats and minerals, and is easily digestible. The leaves contain calcium, iron, niacin, phosphorus, riboflavin and vitamins A and C in high levels.

Craft uses:

Dye mae from this variety of amaranth can also be used on fabric and other fibers. However, a type of mordant should be used so the color does not wash out.

Socio-cultural importance:

Amaranth was extremely important to the Aztecs, who not only received amaranth tribute payments from provinces surrounding their empire, but also believed it to be the food of the gods. It was as common as maize, beans, and squash. The leaves were ritualistically ground up to make tamales to be offered to Xiuhtecuhtli, the fire god, and the seeds were crushed and mixed with honey, agave sap or blood, formed into the shape of idols and ceremonially eaten. Unfortunately, in an attempt to repress indigenous religions beliefs the Spanish attempted to ban the cultivation of amaranth in the Americas. Wild amaranth greens continue to be harvested by indigenous peoples throughout the Southwest and in Northern Mexico, their flourishing leaves being a symbol of the monsoon rains.

For the Hopi, pink piki wafers are associated with the katsinas, the benevolent beings who dwell in the mountains, springs and lakes, and who are the bringers of blessings, particularly rain, crops, and well-being. Katsinas give gifts of piki to Hopi children when they visit the pueblos and dance in the fields to bring in the monsoons.

Cultivation techniques:

Komo is generally grown on irrigated terraces by Hopi. It can be successfully grown in arid conditions, and likes full sun. This amaranth attracts pollinators such as bees and birds. It can be planted with the spring or summer rains. Broadcast or rake the tiny seeds, covering with 1/4 inch of soil. Thin any crowded seedlings and add them to a salad.

References:

Dutton, Bertha P. (1975). The Pueblos. Indians of the American Southwest. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Nelson, Suzanne (2006). Amaranth: A Grain for all Ages. The Seedhead News: 92.

Saur, Jonathon D. (1950). Amaranths as Dye Plants among the Pueblo Peoples. Southwest Journal of Anthropology (6): 412-415.

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