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Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

This year's New Year's Day Rose Parade once again featured many beautiful floats decorated entirely of organic material. I always watch the parade carefully and try to figure out what organic materials are being used.

Amaranth is one of those plants and is used in many ways on floats. In 2004 the Children Learn and Grow with Music float by NAMM featured a scene from Sesame Street with Elmo, Big Bird, and Abelardo playing instruments. Elmo was decorated with red carnations, sweet rice and Amaranth seeds. Often float builders use onion seed to create black color, but the Amaranth seeds intrigued me because they created a much glossier, brighter black.

It is also sometimes used to create red flowing hair on float characters. In 2014, the Dreams Come True float by the City of Alhambra, CA included red burgundy mokaras, dark pink dendrobs blooms, and red hanging amaranth on the monster truck's passengers.

The 2014 Everlasting Love float by Honda was an outdoor canopy of flowers leading to an enclosure overlooking a creek. Trees along the creek were accented with green asparagus plumosus and green hanging amaranth.

So just what is amaranth? Amaranth is an old plant from an extremely large family of plants used for food and bloom. Some species of amaranth are grown as a grain, leafy vegetable, or oil source.

Other members of the family are grown as ornamental plants, such as celosia and gomphrena. The ornamental plant love-lies-bleeding (Amaranthus caudatus) has tassel-like long green or purple flowers and tolerates heat, drought, and poor soil. Some Amaranthus species are called summer poinsettia due to their colorful foliage. However, all Amaranthus plants have a prolific reseeding habit and can become garden weeds.

In fact there are many weed species in the amaranth family, including many different types of pigweeds. Unfortunately, some amaranth weeds have become an economic threat for farmers.

In a June 2014 Illinois News Bureau article, University of Illinois Crop Sciences Professor Aaron Hager "warns farmers about Palmer amaranth, an invasive weed that can take over farm fields in a season or two."

The Amaranth family is so far-reaching that there is even an Aesop's fable about it that goes like this. A Rose and an Amaranth blossomed side by side in a garden, and the Amaranth said to her neighbor, "How I envy you your beauty and your sweet scent! No wonder you are such a universal favorite." But the Rose replied with a shade of sadness in her voice, "Ah, my dear friend, I bloom but for a time: my petals soon wither and fall, and then I die. But your flowers never fade, even if they are cut; for they are everlasting."



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.