A member of the Amaranth family, chaff flower is a weedy plant used as herbal medicine in African and Asian villages. In India and Sri Lanka the plant is used in Ayurvedic medicine to cure or prevent poisonous snake bites and to treat rabies after someone has been bitten by an infected animal. It’s unlikely that such use of the plant is valid however, there does seem to be some benefit in using poultices of the pounded leaves to ease the discomfort of less serious conditions such as rheumatism, chills, scorpion bites, bruises, and for skin ailments and eye infections. A diuretic is made from the flowers, seeds or roots.
Native to India and Australia, chaff flower has a wide distribution mainly because of the way its seeds are dispersed over long distances. They are enclosed in small, hollow, dry fruits that are covered with enough of the remains of the prickly flower to enable them to be carried by the wind and to easily attach to bird feathers, animal fur, and people’s clothing. The plant is a soft-wooded shrub growing up to 1.5 metres tall. Its elliptical leaves appear in opposite pairs and are 10 centimetres long. Narrow, purplish-green flowers, 5 millimetres long, are crowded and borne on slender spikes that rise above the leaves.
Chaff flower grows as a native in the warmer areas of Asia, Africa, and Australasia. It is widespread in the northern half of the Australian continent and has been introduced to New Zealand’s far north.
Other members of the Amaranth family include green amaranth (A. viridus), which was used as a substitute for spinach in the early colonial days of Australia, redroot amaranth (A. retroflexus), spiny or needle burr amaranth (A. spinosus), and slim amaranth (A. hybridus).
In Africa and Asia the young leaves and stems of amaranth are a popular potherb known for their tenderness and lack of fibre. Slim and spiny amaranths provide much needed amino acids for the South African Zulus who have a vegetarian diet of maize meal.
Green amaranth has clusters of nutty seeds that make an excellent crunchy addition to biscuits or can be eaten as a raw snack. The seeds are ripe when they are reddish-brown and can easily be harvested by scraping the spikes between the fingers. Porridge can be made by boiling the seeds in a little water. To use as a vegetable cook the leaves as you would cook spinach.