What Is Pigweed – Learn About Pigweed Plant Uses

By: Mary Ellen Ellis

Using pigweed plants in the kitchen is one way to managethis plant that many gardeners call a pest or a weed. Common throughout theU.S., pigweed is edible from its leaves and stems down to its small seeds.

What is Pigweed?

Pigweed (Amaranthusretroflexus) is one of the most common weeds seen in pastures in the U.S.,but you are also likely to see it in your garden. Like other weeds it is tough,growing in a variety of conditions and resisting many herbicides.

There are actually many types of plant called pigweed, avast family also known as amaranth. The family probably originated in theAmericas but now grows throughout the world. It includes cultivated cereals aswell as several plants considered to be weeds.

The pigweeds you are likely to encounter in U.S. gardens alllook similar and may grow in height between just 4 inches (10 cm.) to over 6feet (2 meters). The leaves are simple and oval-shaped, often with some redcoloration. The stems are sturdy and the flowers are unremarkable.

Is Pigweed Edible?

Yes, the weeds in the garden we call pigweed, including prostratepigweed, from the amaranth family, are edible. Every part of theplant can be eaten, but the young leaves and growing tips on older plants arethe tastiest and most tender. The seeds are nutritious and edible and are notdifficult to harvest.

So, how can you eat pigweed? Use it in most of the ways youwould any other edible green. For raw eating, stick with the young leaves andnew shoots. These can be used like salad greens or spinach. The young and olderleaves can also be sautéed or steamed, used as you would chardor turnipgreens. The leaves contain vitamins A and C, and iron and calcium.

Pigweed plant uses include harvesting and eating the seeds,raw or cooked. The seeds are particularly nutritious and are high in protein,fiber, and vitamins A and C. You can eat the seeds raw, roasted, cooked as ahot cereal, and even popped like popcorn.

If enjoying pigweed from your garden, be sure that you havenot sprayed pesticides or herbicides on it before harvesting. Also, be awarethat some varieties, like Amaranthusspinosus, have sharp spines that will need to be avoided or removed.

Disclaimer:The contents of this article is for educational and gardening purposes only.Before using or ingesting ANY herb or plant for medicinal purposes orotherwise, please consult a physician, medical herbalist or other suitableprofessional for advice.

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Redroot Pigweed, a Humble and Underrated Wild Edible

Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus)
(Source: F. D. Richards/Wikimedia Commons)

Redroot pigweed (Amaranthus retroflexus), also known as pigweed amaranth, is a common summer annual herb. This plant is native to the tropical Americas, but it has been introduced to also every continent in the world. In the US, this plant is mainly used as livestock fodder, especially for hogs and pigs, hence its name. Other than that, this plant also grows in many farm fields and gardens. Due to its prolific growth and hardiness, some people regard this plant as a pesky weed.

This plain-looking plant may be a livestock fodder. But, that doesn’t mean that humans can’t enjoy it as well. In fact, this plant is considered a valuable vegetable in many parts of the world. For example, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Indians are known to include pigweed leaves in their traditional dishes. Moreover, this plant is well-known for being a great survival food due to its delicious flavor and its nutritional content.

Redroot Pigweed For Treating the Ducks - Who Would Have Thought?

Ever since I was a little girl, I heard about the redroot pigweed used as a food for the ducks. But, also, that it is a bad weed. Which is it then?

When I was a kid, people didn't use so much chemicals as nowadays. Weeds were growing everywhere, especially on damp fields. Some of those weeds were growing even in our block's garden and in the park. It wasn't such a great care for keeping nature clean of weeds - or, maybe, this was the purpose, of keeping the nature as it was. Be as it may, the weed I am going to write about, was anywhere I would have looked!
My grandpa used to teach me which plant was which, so I grew up knowing almost all the weeds in the surroundings. He told me that redroot pigweed was very much used as food for the ducks and pigs and that's where its name came from. Also, poor people used to make a sour soup with Romanian borsh with this plant and some other plants they picked up from the field. Redroot pigweed's common name in Romanian is 'stir' which means something very dry - probably, coming from the plant's resistance to drought.
Amaranthus retroflexus is an annual edible plant from the Amaranthaceae family, native to tropical America. It is also called redroot pigweed, not only because of its fodder use, but also because its taproot is really red. Stems are numerous on an adult plant and have small hairs all over - same on the diamond-shaped leaves. Flowers are numerous, at the end of each tip and are gathered in multi-branched spikes. Male and female flowers are on the same plant. Female flowers matures into a dry capsule, each containing a single black seed inside. But those are about 200,000 on each mature plant! [1] Maybe that's why it was called 'amarantus' which means immortal in Greek - because they cannot die - having so many seeds! [2] This is the only thing I kept in my mind ever since my grandpa told me about this plant, that it is a very bad weed, which spreads very fast and it is invasive, dangerous for other plants, not to mention the crops on the field. Maybe that's why it has been considered more like a weed lately and not like a valuable fodder, as it used to be.

Most of the Amaranthus species have been used for food and, also, for medical purpose, since ancient times. Aztecs used to cultivate it both for food and medical use. They are currently cultivated in many countries, such as China, Nepal, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Mexic and some of the African countries. Amaranthus seeds were, but are now more and more used as pseudocereals, because of their properties, especially because they are gluten-free.[3]
Now I realize that, what my husband told me about the redroot pigweed, was an amazing information. He grew up at his grandparents in the countryside and knows a lot of stories and things about farm animals and birds. He told me that the red pigweed was also used as an antibiotic for geese and ducks. His grandparents used to ground parts of the plant and feed the baby geese and ducks with that natural antibiotic, to avoid future illness. They actually stuffed the ground plant into the birds throat! Maybe that's why aviar flu never existed back then!
This isn't just a story, it's a true fact, because our ancestors really treated and nurtured their farm animals and birds with this plant. Recent studies about the Amaranthus species are proving that these plants are not just weeds or only fodder, but also very good remedies for human illnesses too, including cancer. All Amaranthus plants contain minerals, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins, amino acids, flavonoids, alcaloids, carotenoids and many others.[2]
Knowing these, it's strange that people are trying to eradicate these plants, instead of growing them. I'm glad to hear about the baby steps some are making in rediscovering the therapeutical potential of the Amaranthus plants.

But I also have to give credit to those who are afraid of these invasive plants, which can really kill a crop. I used to fight the redroot pigweed when I was caring for the block's garden, years ago. I had to weed a lot at first and most of the weeds were redroot pigweed plants. I've never seen one in years, ever since I moved into the countryside - what an irony! But, last summer, I found it again in my garden. I had bought some dry horse manure and spread it over my vegetable garden. I had some weeds popping out after that and when I started to weed, I recognized the redroot pigweed - not that I missed it! Lots of small plants were growing all over and, since I knew how it looked like, I could stop it from growing. But some of the seeds might have managed to stay in there - or maybe I forgot to dug out some - because I still had lots of them this year too. That was a good thing only for writing this article and for taking a few pictures of the plants, but as soon as I didn't need them anymore, I dug them all out. They can be tricky though, because - if the root doesn't come out - the plant starts growing again and this is how it can sneak out, without my knowledge. A spike full of seeds is enough to fill my garden with redroot pigweeds again!
But it is reassuring to know that this plant is edible and that our grandparents used to eat it in a soup. If I would ever find too many red pigweed plants in my garden again, I might make a sour soup with borsh, although I can't promise you that my husband will eat it!

Weeds You Can Eat: Wild Amaranth

Pigweed is one of the common names given to a clutch of Amaranth species that crash parties where they are not wanted. Including Amaranthus retroflexus (red root pigweed), A. spinosus (spiny pigweed), A. palmeri (Palmer’s pigweed), and A. hybridus (rough pigweed), these uninvited agricultural and garden guests are so ubiquitous that they seldom invite closer scrutiny from farmers and gardeners, who pull them up by the roots, or douse them in Roundup (some species are now glyphosate-resistant, as a result).

In the United States most people view these plants as weeds, but in the Caribbean amaranth is prized as callaloo. In India amaranths are cultivated for their seeds (pseudo-grains) and leaves. Wild amaranths are eaten in South Africa as nutritious pot herbs.

Despite our distaste for the plants, amaranths are essentially American, and well known to many Native Americans who used the whole plant as food. And they are one of the oldest food crops in the world. Ask the Aztecs, who prized the prolific and tiny seeds, interest in which was resurrected only as late as the 1970s. Amaranth seeds have now reached gluten-free, superfood cult status.

I like the leaves. And I welcome summertime and its crop of amaranth, preferring the cooked leaves’ firmness to spinach, which isn’t in season in hot weather, anyway. Think of the pigweeds as summer spinach, filling the leafy gap between late spring and autumn, now that the season has turned a corner and is beginning the free fall to September, with August’s glut in between.

Read on for step-by-step instructions to make Pigweed Tacos.

Above: Amaranths are nutritious, stuffed with vitamins, folic acid (vitamin B9), minerals, and protein. The plant is edible from tender stems through leaves, flowers and seeds. The cooked leaves can be used variously as simple green side dishes, in quiches, green Mediterranean-style pies, bruschetta toppings, pestos, soups, and saags.

Above: Wherever I have gardened pigweed has followed me. Or got there first. On a rooftop in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, it volunteered one year in a pot where a beautiful rose grew. I recognized it as one of the morogs (edible wild greens) that are gathered in South Africa, my homeland. So I ate it, on toast. It was earthy and delicious.

Above: On our Harlem terrace pigweed appeared and competed with the equally tenacious (but deliberately planted) jewelweed. I turned it into pesto.

But it was so prevalent last summer when we moved to Carroll Gardens (Brooklyn, again) that I yanked it out along with the other weeds that crowded the vegetable plot. I didn’t even bother to eat it. Which was perhaps a good instinct. Amaranth is useful in phytoremediation of soils: it absorbs heavy metals, and we had high lead levels. It also absorbs a great deal of nitrogen (like spinach), so do not collect vast quantities from highly fertilized agricultural fields. Infants should not be fed amaranth as too much can cause blue baby syndrome (methaemoglobinaemia).

Above: It was while we lived in Harlem that I was thrilled to discover huge bunches of callaloo at a farmers’ market on 125th Street, sold by an upstate New York farmer with a thick Caribbean accent. Then it appeared at a nearby supermarket, nestling between the beets and the carrots.

Above: The eating world is slowly warming up to the idea of amaranth as dinner. On my plate at a Brooklyn restaurant I identified pigweed tempura where the menu listed “wild spinach.” Then I spotted it at the Union Square farmers’ market, at First World prices.

Above: For a warm soup, I cook pigweed leaves with lemon juice and vegetable stock and drop in a just-cooked egg before serving. But on the hottest days of summer, too terrified to use the stove, I simmer the leaves for about four minutes with some scallions and olive oil and chicken stock, then turn off the gas and let it steam under a tight lid till tender. Add some yogurt, whizz in a blender, top with some powdered sumac, serve cold.

Above: For pigweed pesto, scoop the gelatinous pulp from a salt-preserved Meyer lemon, and slice the skin into ribbons before chopping it finely. Sauté blanched pigweed leaves in a hot pan with some butter and olive oil and lemon juice. In a food processor put the lemon skin, pigweed, pine nuts, more butter, a raw garlic clove, finely rasped parmesan, and press Destruct. When you have a coarse paste, it is ready for hot, egg yolky pasta.

Above: More like a pizza, the dough for this rustic tart is nothing but flour and olive oil and water instead of being solid, it is crisp and flaky, and very easy. For the topping I used wilted pigweed (or lamb’s quarters) leaves. The recipe is my book, 66 Square Feet—A Delicious Life.

Above: For this salad I sauté the finely chopped leaves and late summer seedheads of amaranth with some thinly sliced lemon zest, allow the mixture to cool, and top green tomatoes and mozzarella with the lemony-green relish. Purslane finishes it off.

Pigweed Tacos

Above: Breakfast on weeds? Why not?

Pigweed Tacos

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, sliced thinly
  • ½ pound blanched amaranth leaves and tender stems
  • ½ lime
  • Salt and pepper
  • 4 flour tortillas
  • 2 8-minute boiled eggs, peeled
  • ½ tablespoon unsalted butter
  • Sriracha, or your favorite hot sauce

Warm the olive oil in a pan over medium heat and add the garlic. Cook for about 5 minutes until it is turning translucent but not brown. Add the pigweed and stir well. Add a squeeze of lime juice, plus salt and pepper to taste.

Meanwhile, in a hot pan, toast the tortillas on each side still they begin to puff up slightly, then flip until the other side puffs. Keep warm inside a folded napkin.

To serve, scatter the warm greens over the tortillas, dot with small pieces of butter, top with the halved eggs, and finish with a flourish of Sriracha. Fold, eat.

Garden companion planting is one method to successfully grow your own edible, medicinal or even purely aesthetic garden. This method is simple, rewarding and encourages us to learn more about the interrelated nature of the natural world. This is one of the many methods used in sustainable agricultural practices used by the permaculture approach.

For further resources on growing food using companion planting, check out this link: Carrots Love Tomatoes article on MotherEarthNews

Interested in learning more about sustainable design skills? Check out Alderleaf's Permaculture Courses.

About the Author: Filip Tkaczyk is a periodic guest teacher at Alderleaf. He also wrote the field guide Tracks & Sign of Reptiles & Amphibians. Learn more about Filip Tkaczyk.

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