It’s About Time We All Learned How Quinoa Grows

Posted by on June 3, 2017

Since quinoa has become such a staple in our diet, we thought it was time to know where those tiny seeds come from. In other words, how does it grow? If you don’t already know, you’re about to.
RODRIGO BUENDIA VIA GETTY IMAGES
A field of quinoa plants.

Quinoa is harvested from tall green plants. While the plant sprouts are slow-growing at first, the plant eventually shoots up to and beyond three feet. The leaves of the plant resemble that of the edible weed lamb’s-quarter. The two are closely related, which means that the leaves of quinoa are also edible (so if you grow your own, feel free to toss them into a salad).

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A field of green quinoa.

Quinoa thrives in cooler weather, and is extremely drought tolerant. It can also tolerate high levels of salt, wind and frost, which allows it to be cultivated in high risk areas. That’s why it was a main crop in the Andes, cultivated by the Incas since before 3,000 B.C.

The part of the quinoa plant that we typically eat is the seed. (Remember, quinoa is a seed and not a grain.) In order to get the seed, the plant first needs to flower. This is what flowering quinoa looks like:

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A field of flowering quinoa.

And this is a closeup of the flower buds.

DAVID MERCADO / REUTERS
A closeup of flowering quinoa.

Quinoa is ready to harvest when all the green leaves have fallen off the plant, and the plants are just seed heads on a stalk. Quinoa should be very dry when harvested, dry enough that you can’t dent the seed with your fingernail. Sometimes it’s left to dry on the stalk, other times it is dried post harvest.

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A field of ready-to-harvest quinoa.

Once harvested, the quinoa seed is fairly easy to remove from the seed heads. A hard shake can release most of them.

DAVID MERCADO / REUTERS
Separating the seed from the seed head.

But in commercial production they might use something a little more advanced. Quinoa needs to be polished or rinsed before eating to remove the seeds’ saponin coating ― the plant’s natural protectant from birds and insects ― which can taste quite bitter.

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A quinoa processor in Bolivia.

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