The word is huauzontle, and finding its etymology is a bit of an adventure. You will likely already have guessed, given the “-tl” ending, that the name derives from the Nahuatl langauge, the tongue of the Aztecs, and thus, as is true of “tomatl” and “coyotl,” describes something found in central Mexico. And you are correct. But what does it mean? The one direct English translation I found, a bit suspect, was “hair amaranth.” This is obviously not quite right. The plant looks amaranthy enough to confuse a present-day non-botanist North American, but pre-contact Americans knew their amaranths, and this isn’t one of them. It’s a Chenopodium, one of a genus of plants closely related to the amaranths (and lately, after genetic study, put within the amaranth family by the Angiosperm Phylogeny Group) but distinct in morphology. The chenopods were of great economic importance to Native Mexicans, and it’s hella unlikely they’d have called one an “amaranth.”
The huauzontle entry in the Spanish fork of Wikipedia brings us closer, giving as its parenthetical etymology of the word:
(del náhuatl huautzontli, literalmente = ‘bledo como cabello’, de huautli ‘bledo’ y tzontli ‘cabello’.)
Word for word: From Náhuatl “huautzontli,” literally = “chenopod resembling human head hair,” from huautli “chenopod” and tzontli “human head hair.”
It’s charming enough that Spanish has a word for “human head hair,” and cabello, like “hair,” functions as both a singular and collective noun. It can mean one strand of hair from a human head or the mass of hair on a human head. There’s also an adjective, cabelludo, which means “hairy” except with that same restriction to the hair being on a human head. I’m clearly going to have to start using “cabelludo” in casual speech.
But about that “bledo.” It’s one thing for a land-based culture to have a diverse and detailed taxonomical vocabulary for important crop plants. With a couple of exceptions, though, the chenopods aren’t nearly as important to the agricultural economy of Mexico as they once were, especially as the agricultural economy of Mexico is mainly cultivated in Iowa these days and dumped on the market by subsidized US corporations. How cool is it that a simple common part of speech nonetheless persists in Mexican Castellano describing a genus of plants most gringos have never heard of?
To be fair, the gringos have the same word with the same meaning. It’s a cognate, anyway: “blite.” Of course a vanishingly small percentage of gringos have ever even heard the word, and most who have probably assumed the person was using a homonym. “Blite,” nonetheless, is the common Gringlish word meaning “chenopod.” You can now use it to describe lamb’s quarters and pigweed and epazote and quinoa.
And huauzontle! Which I found yesterday in the corner store. That little corner store is an ethnobotanist’s wet dream. It’s run by a Mexican-American sister and brother, and they cater in part to the neighborhood’s burgeoning Andean population, so there are always little treasures popping up on the shelves. Corn so purple it’s black, for instance, sold for making chicha morada and which I bought a couple years ago as seed corn. Or Chuño, an Andean form of freeze-dried potato traditionally made by grinding potatoes, leaving them outside overnight to freeze at 14,597 feet, then mashing them the next day to drive out some of the liquid and repeating the process a few more times. There are bright yellow Aji peppers that look way more hot than they prove actually to be, and sludgy, bitter drinks made from maca, one of about a dozen common Andean tuberous vegetables. (Tried it. Didn’t like it.)
Anyway, they had huauzontle yesterday, Chenopodium berlandieri ssp. nuttallii, which is used in a manner very much as is broccoli. The green flower buds and small stems (pedicels) on which the buds reside are cooked and eaten as a green vegetable. Since it’s from Mexico, it is traditionally cooked at least twice before people eat it. Blanched or boiled and then wrapped around cheese, battered with eggs, fried, and then cooked in tomato sauce, for instance. Sometimes it’s just boiled and battered and fried on its own, and people eat it by holding the big stems and pulling the buds off with their teeth, vaguely like corn on the cob.
That first step of boiling may have been completely necessary back a couple thousand years ago. Blites often have saponins in them, bitter, soapy chemicals likely evolved by the plants under selective pressure from grazing animals and insects. Quinoa, for instance, which some Blitologists surmise may actually be descended from huauzontle or vice versa, has enough saponins in its seedcoat tissue that you need to rinse the seeds before cooking them. Huauzontle might have been bitter back then unless you leached the saponin out of it.
I didn’t boil the huauzontle. I just chopped it up some, sauteed it for a bit in olive oil, poured three beaten eggs over it all, made something the approximate shape of an omelet, and grated some pecorino cheese over it. It was really, really good. And it turns out I made a safe choice about the saponins. As the Spanish fork of Wikipedia says:
Las saponinas pueden ser tóxicas, pero el huauzontle contiene cantidades tan pequeñas que no presentan ningún riesgo.
Mmmmmmm, ningún riesgo. Mi favorita.