Chia Plant: Sage’s Seedier CousinJanuary 17, 2022
One superfood packed with omega-3 fatty acids is the chia seed. People purchase chia seeds to add protein to their favourite meals, or for use as an egg replacement in vegan diets. Chia sprouts are common in the kitchen as well. Thankfully, chia seeds come from the chia plant, which is easy to care for once it takes off!
Whether you eat chia seeds or not, growing chia plants will bring all sorts of health benefits to your garden as well. Chia flowers are lovely, and chia plants grow in a wide array of conditions. They have virtually no pests or diseases and a long growing season, allowing you to enjoy the leaves and flowers of this lovely plant for longer than you may expect.
Chia is an easy addition to outdoor gardens in the Southeastern United States to Central America and even to South America. It’s also great in a greenhouse in areas where winters are cold and harsh. It can be grown as a small tree in homes too.
If you’re interested in growing a chia crop for health benefits you’ll have a chance to save yourself a trip to the health food store. Let’s talk about growing chia!
All About Chia
There are two major chia species found in home gardens: Salvia hispanica (or Mexican chia, Mexican sage, Spanish sage) and Salvia columbariae (or the golden chia plant, desert chia). Both are members of the family Lamiaceae, which includes mint, deadnettle, and all types of sage. Chia is grown for its seeds that are used in baked goods, overnight oats, and even in beverages. The leaves are also eaten, but more so when they’re young as microgreens. As the leaves mature they become slightly bitter, making them preferable in earlier stages.
The chia plant is native to Central Mexico and Guatemala. Native peoples there and in what is today considered the Southeastern US used the plant as food and medicine since before Columbian colonization. Many different peoples cared for chia and still do. Nahuatl, Maya, Inca, and Aztec people developed the cultivars of chia we know today. The Native American root word for chia, chian has different meanings among different people. In Mayan cosmology, chian means strength, whereas among Nahuatl people it means oily.
Chia grows annually up to 6 feet tall and spreads 18 inches wide. The 1 to 2 inch wide leaves grow like those of plants in the mint family, opposite the central square stem. They are covered in small hairs. In late spring to early summer, chia flowers bloom in shades of blue. The petals form half flowers that attract native bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Flowers self-pollinate. As the flowers bloom and die away, seed heads dry, and white and brown seeds mature within. When the petals are all gone from the plant, tiny seeds are ready to be harvested. Like other plants in the mint family, chia roots are shallow. And chia seeds self-sow, coming back year after year.
Chia seeds are packed with omega-3 fatty acids and have other health benefits. They support healthy blood glucose levels, good bone density, and weight loss efforts. They’re also used to lower the risk of heart disease and stabilize blood pressure. Chia sprouts are well-known to those born within the past two decades and further back due to the popularization of the chia pet, where chia seeds would be spread on a clay figure and grow into fun shapes that included Bob Ross’ hair.
Types Of Chia
There are distinct botanical differences between Salvia hispanica and columbariae. While the Hispanic variety has flower spikes, columbariae has 1 to 2 clustered flowers that look a lot like bee balm. The seed color of hispanica tends to be black and brown. These are the organic chia seeds you’ll most likely find in the health food store. The golden species’ seeds are tan and grey. Another distinct difference is the climate in which each species prefers. While hispanica will thrive in more humid areas, columbariae prefers dry desert conditions. Both plants have nutritional benefits and can be used for blood pressure support, and do just as well in chia pudding. In terms of the use for both kinds of chia seeds, they’re almost the same plant. White flowers are common in the hispanica species too. Golden varieties tend to have small blue to purple flower heads.
Growing chia plants is easy as long as you’ve managed to get them going via chia seeds. To start, plant chia seeds in the fall. You can start them indoors or outside in your garden bed. The trick to germinating chia seeds is to hydrate them enough for them to form the gelatinous shell they’re known for. Then, use a popsicle stick to spread a few seeds evenly on the soil surface or on clay soils outdoors or in small pots. You can just plant the seeds on their own, but they take much longer to germinate if they aren’t fully hydrated. Keep the soil moist and they’ll germinate within a couple of weeks.
When growing chia and starting seeds indoors, transplant them when they are small plants at 3 inches tall. They’ll thrive when planted in an area where they have enough room to grow into a large bush or small tree at about 5 feet tall. Most guides recommend planting at least 6 inches apart. Give them an area with good drainage, full sun, and soil that retains some moisture.
So, you’ve explored how to spread or sprinkle chia seeds on the soil. Now let’s talk about caring for your chia plants.
Sun and Temperature
Chia plants enjoy areas with full direct sunlight, at around 6 to 8 hours per day. Chia plants also enjoy USDA zones 8 to 11. Temperatures of 61 degrees Fahrenheit to 79 degrees are optimal for growing chia plants. Outside of their USDA zones, chia plants can be grown in greenhouses and indoors. Chia plants can also tolerate temperatures down to 51 degrees and up to 96 degrees. Freezing temperatures are hard on the chia plant, and extended freezes will kill outdoor plants. However, they’ll self-sow and return the following spring if they’ve had a chance to form seeds. In high triple-digit heat, chia will singe and slow flower production. A shade cloth might assist chia plants in higher heat moments.
Water and Humidity
For chia plants, water regularly in the morning, especially in warmer seasons. When the chia plant is well-established, you can cut back on regular watering. Since these plants are drought-tolerant, they’ll do just fine once they’ve settled into their new home. The best form of irrigation for growing chia seeds is drip irrigation. Soaker hoses are also satisfactory forms of watering. When there’s been an extra amount of rain in early summer or late spring, don’t add more water which can rot the roots of chia plants.
Grow chia seeds in soil that is average to clayey. The key trick to growing chia seeds effectively is to provide plants with well-drained soil that can wick moisture and nutrients through the roots easily. Although chia is sometimes a desert plant, it can survive in other soil types. If you live in an area with compacted soil, try adding a small amount of garden or potting soil with sand to the earth to provide a little more drainage. Although chia is well-adapted to many different pH ranges, it prefers slightly acidic soil at a range of 6.5 to 8.5.
Chia is sensitive to too much fertilization. The best way to provide nutrition to these plants is to give them a good amount of healthy compost or well-rotted manure upon planting. At most, after these plants have taken off, give them a diluted full spectrum foliar feed at an NPK of 1.5-2.2-1.5 once or twice during their growth period.
If you don’t want the small white and brown seeds to self-sow, you can skip harvesting chia and deadhead the flowers after the petals die away. You can also prune sprouts after sowing them densely to use in salads and sandwiches. Young leaves can be removed to consume like spinach as well. But outside of harvesting for the seed, there is no need to prune these plants. Removing the flower heads will remove all the seeds, reduce seed yield, and prevent the return of chia in the following spring.
Chia seeds are the only mode of propagation for the chia plant. Simply allow the seed heads to self-sow after they die away in the fall, or remove the seed heads and plant the seeds in the garden bed after you’ve had time to immerse them in water and they’ve formed their mucosal film. You can do the same indoors. See the ‘Planting Chia’ section for more details.
Harvesting and Storing
You’ve done the work of growing many plants from your chia seeds. Now it’s time for the payoff! Let’s discuss harvesting the seeds of this lovely plant.
You can easily harvest seeds right after the flowers die away on flower clusters and spikes. Leaves are ready as soon as they are mature. Harvest sprouts when they’re just a couple of inches tall with a sharp knife. Do this throughout their growing season, and do not let the heads brown too much which can compromise seed yield. Remove the entire seed head, and shake it. If you can hear the seeds within, it’s time to extract them. Cut the heads from the stem, and lay them on a drying rack. Alternatively, you can place them in paper bags to dry for a couple of days.
Commercial seed farmers have mechanical ways of extracting seeds. At home you can simply crush the seed head and blow away the crushed matter, leaving only the seeds behind. Do this by hand, or with a fan. Note there will be quite a bit of cleanup, so it may be better to extract seed outdoors. Some commercial growers will then sift their seeds through a sieve to remove any debris.
Fresh and dried chia seeds do best in an airtight glass or plastic container. Mason jars are preferable. They’ll keep in a cool dark place like this for 5 years. You can refrigerate them to extend their shelf life slightly. You can vacuum seal them and put them in the freezer to keep them for 5 to 10 years. Prepared chia flour or chia gel (seeds immersed in water) will keep in the refrigerator in airtight containers for a couple of weeks. Chia gel is a great addition to healthful beverages like chia Fresca. Chia leaves should be consumed immediately or stored in a plastic bag between paper towels in the refrigerator and consumed within a couple of days.
Chia plants have virtually no pests or diseases. There are a few growing conditions that will damage the plant, however. Let’s cover those.
Because these plants are drought tolerant, a lack of water isn’t often an issue. However, they are sensitive to extreme heat and can singe if they are exposed to an extended heatwave. Provide a little more water to the plant at this time. Also, plants that have been placed in an area with poor drainage could be more susceptible to diseases. A good foundation will prevent growing issues surrounding this easy-going plant.
This plant has virtually no pests.
Root rot is a fungal condition that develops when chia has been planted in media that does not drain well. You can try to remove the plant and transplant it into fresh soil with some added sand. This could shock the plant, and there is a risk of it being too far gone and dying, but this trick could help it pull through in the long run. Worst-case scenario, you’ll have to wait for next spring to enjoy a full harvest in this case. You may want to remove seed heads and germinate them elsewhere while you solarize the diseased soil over the next season. A cover crop like buckwheat could assist in breaking the disease cycle in the interim.