Urban gardener, Cleve West: Dreadlock holiday

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The Independent Online

Plant prejudice affects us all to a certain degree. Likes and dislikes are often based on nothing more than a gut feeling, but that's enough for some species to get under the skin, to the point where they simply can't be abided. Forsythia, syringa and canna are a few that never seem to find their way into any of my plant plans (unless of course the client insists), and I'd be hard-pushed to include a begonia, no matter how much you paid me.

Another plant that, until now, has been on my hit-list is Amaranthus caudatus or Love Lies Bleeding. My reasoning, and I'll admit that it's a bit of a weak argument, is that it looks synthetic. Droopy flowers like giant pipe-cleanersare about as alien as anything you'll find in an English garden. It's as though the entrails of a cuddly toy have suddenly erupted in the flower bed.

The crimson dreadlocks are often seen in park bedding schemes intermingled with the dreaded begonias. A native of India, it may well look fine among dahlias and lush foliage, but despite a hankering for exotica myself now and then, I still find the artificiality of amaranthus difficult to place.

However, the way to this man's heart is quite definitely through his stomach, and out of the 60 or so types of amaranthus, some are valued higher for their use in the kitchen than for their flowers. Eddie, a tenant at Manor Garden Allotments (where they are still campaigning to save it from the 2012 Olympic development), gave me seeds last year of A. tricolor, a purple-blotched leaf type growing all over his plot. He calls it callaloo, a Jamaican leaf vegetable that can be cooked like spinach. The seeds were sown around this time in the hope they would yield a late crop - but nothing appeared. Three plants, however, came up this year (unfortunately in the middle of a bed of root crops) and two have been allowed to stay. The plain green leaves, quite unlike the parent plant (suggesting some cross-pollination has occurred), have proved to be very tasty.

At the moment the flower heads of this particular amaranth are upright like a giant astilbe - and I must confess that I've softened a bit to its form, although as an annual growing to a metre or more, it would be tricky to site in a small garden. In large gardens they might be used to enliven a tropical theme, or even spice up a herbaceous border. In time, however, the flowers will bend under the weight of innumerable seeds that will, if care is not taken to remove them, spread all over the plot. I am, however, tempted to leave them, as the grain from amaranth can be ground and used as flour for chapattis, or cooked like popcorn to make ladoos, one of my favourite Indian sweets.

Prized by the ancient Aztec and Mayan tribes of Mexico, the seeds of the amaranth were toasted and mixed with honey or molasses. In ritual ceremonies (with a modicum of human blood added for good measure), the sweet biscuits were thought to release hidden powers. It actually wasn't far off the truth - as the grain is extremely rich in amino acids and therefore, unlike wheat, nutritionally complete.

Catholicism put an end to the bloody-biscuit ritual and the popularity of the grain amaranth, especially A. cruentis and A. hypochondriaca (not a great name for a plant, it has to be said, especially if we are pinning our hopes on disease-resistant crops to feed the world), waned until quite recently. It wasn't until the 1970s that its nutritional value began to be understood.

Packed with vitamins, minerals and fibre, its only drawback is a relatively high content of oxalic acid, which can inhibit the absorption of calcium and should therefore be either avoided, or eaten in moderation, by those with kidney disorders, gout or rheumatoid arthritis. It has a slightly stronger taste than spinach and provides a good base for soup, in to which other ingredients - limited only by your imagination - can be added. Another feather in its cap (though I haven't verified this) is that the flowers are said to be attractive to moths - making it altogether a pretty useful plant to have around. Begonias, please take note.